A Wisconsin Native American tribe wants a 64-year-old oil pipeline removed from its reservation due to concerns that it poses a grave environmental threat.
The Bad River Band of Lake Superior Chippewa's tribal council approved a resolution on Wednesday, Jan. 4, to refuse new easements along 12 miles of Enbridge's Line 5 pipeline, which carries oil and natural gas liquids 645 miles from Canada to eastern Michigan. In a very rare move, the resolution also calls for the decommissioning and removal of the pipeline from all Bad River lands and watershed along the shores of Lake Superior in far northern Wisconsin.
“We really don’t know how everything is going to play out,” said Dylan Jennings, a Bad River council member. “We can’t speak for Enbridge and what they are thinking or what they intend to do. This is kind of an unprecedented thing from our understanding. We know of communities that attempt to stop pipelines, but don’t know of any booting out or uprooting them.”
Jennings said that while they stand with the protesters around Standing Rock Indian Reservation fighting to stop the Dakota Access pipeline in North Dakota, their decision has been a long time coming and was not spurred by the recent attention to the issue.
“It just so happened this was the time that we chose to move forward through formal resolution,” he said.
Apparently the resolution caught Calgary-based Enbridge off guard. In a statement released shortly after the resolution passed, Enbridge officials said they were "surprised to learn of the Bad River Band's decision not to renew individual easements within the reservation for Line 5 after negotiating in good faith for the past several years.”
The company said it has worked with “the band's cultural resources, natural resources and legal departmental staff to maintain safe pipeline operations within the boundaries of the reservation” and that the line is inspected at least once every five years to determine the degree of corrosion, potential cracks, and any other problems.
Jennings called the decision “long overdue,” saying that the tribe has been “silent observers” as the world news has show what kind of devastation can happen from an oil spill. He noted that the nearby Kalamazoo oil spill in 2010 happened on a similar sized pipeline, but that pipeline was only 43 years old when it ruptured.
“This is a really important time for our society and our communities to stand up and to be that voice of reason; to make sure that we have done all that we possibly can to protect our natural resources for future generations,” said Jennings. “We don’t expect everyone to agree with our point of view, but we hope someday they’ll understand these decisions are for the benefit of everyone.”
Mike Shriberg, Great Lakes Regional Executive Director with the National Wildlife Federation, said that the Bad River Band decision places the tribe not only in the center of a discussion about the potential spill impacts to their own land, but also to the Great Lakes region.
“They are now right in the center of a raging debate over what happens to a pipeline that is beyond its design life,” he said.
He said while other Native American tribes have expressed concern over the pipeline, those have largely been based on fishing rights in Michigan, and that this “adds an important new element because of the direct property owning rights.”
A portion of the Line 5 pipeline runs underwater at the bottom of the Straits of Mackinac, which links Lake Michigan and Lake Huron. The pipeline was installed in this ecologically sensitive area over 60 years ago, and environmentalists worry that it’s only a matter of time before a devastating rupture occurs. According to the NWF, a spill in the region would be an unparalleled disaster for the Great Lakes.
Shriberg said that while the direct impacts of the Bad River Band’s decision remain to be seen, it’s clear that the move took Enbridge by surprise. He said it adds “an enormous amount of pressure” on a pipeline company that’s already associated with the largest inland oil spill in United States history—the 2010 Kalamazoo spill.
“The Bad River Band is adding some very significant fuel to an already burning fire,” said Shriberg. “It puts major pressure on Enbridge to justify the continued use of this line. The public is against it, the risk has never been higher, and now the people it directly impacts want to decommission it on their own.”
Both the Bad River Band and Enbridge are considering their options going forward—whether this be legal confrontation, redirecting the pipeline, or finding another way to get the oil to market (or not). The Line 5 pipeline moves 540,000 barrels per day—2.3 million gallons—of crude oil, synthetic crude oil, and natural gas liquids which are refined into propane.
Apparently it’s still unclear how the pipeline could be rerouted around tribal land, an option considered in 2009 when the Fond du Lac Band of Lake Superior Chippewa considered a similar resolution towards Enbridge's Alberta Clipper pipeline. However the two sides eventually agreed on an easement fee that avoided any rerouting.
"As a tribal government, much like any other sovereign government, our tribal council is elected by the people, for the people," said Jennings. "We have the obligation to listen to our membership, and that's what we do. Ultimately, this decision is from our people."