A few hundred people gathered on the shore of Gichi-gami (Lake Superior) to protest the proposed Enbridge Line 3 tar sands pipeline, Sept. 27, 2019, Duluth, Minn. | Fibonacci Blue, Flickr
Next week a court filing by the Bad River Band of Lake Superior Chippewa will be brought before a U.S. district court judge in Madison who is presiding over a legal battle between the tribe and the Canadian energy company Enbridge, over the company’s Line 5 pipeline. Since 2019, the tribe has argued that Enbridge is trespassing on its land, and that the pipeline endangers the Bad River. Momentum has continued to build on both sides of the legal battle, with the pipeline continuing to operate all the while.
“The interconnected waters flowing through the Mashkiiziibii—the Bad River — are inseparable from our people’s existence,” said Bad River Band Chairman Mike Wiggins in a May 11 statement. “We cannot afford to place our trust wholly in Enbridge’s assurances that these waters are safe. Instead, we must follow the science and our own traditional knowledge gathered by generations whose lives depended on this ecosystem.”
Wiggins’ statement accompanied the tribe’s court filing calling for an emergency closure of the pipeline. The filing echoes many concerns expressed by the tribe and environmental advocates about the possibility of a catastrophic failure in the pipeline. It highlights that some estimates show there are just 11 feet of protective soil underneath the pipeline, and just 5 feet above it.
A breach in the pipeline could trigger a significant water quality and ecological disaster, the filing argues. Those fears have been further amplified by the arrival of spring flood season. In October, during court proceedings related to the tribe’s lawsuit, experts testifying on behalf of the Bad River Band stated that spring flooding could leave Line 5 virtually inaccessible. The lawsuit stemmed from the pipeline’s operation on tribal lands despite the tribe’s decision not to renew easements which expired in 2013.
Last September, U.S. District Judge William Conley ruled that Enbridge is illegally trespassing on tribal land while collecting profits. An immediate shutdown of the pipeline was not on the table at the time. By December, the tribe and Enbridge were supposed to meet to discuss completing shutdown protocols for the pipeline, but were unable to come to an agreement. Opponents of the pipeline point to its design as an underground pipeline, not one meant to endure rushing river currents and flood waters. Shoreline erosion in Wisconsin is another concern, with experts testifying that in 2016 the riverbank lost 15 feet of shoreline in a single storm. Some 10 feet of riverbank has been lost in one part of the river in the two weeks prior to the emergency filing on Wednesday. Shoreline erosion is one effect of climate change in Wisconsin.
The Enbridge company has countered that the 645-mile oil pipeline — which was built in 1953 — is modern, safe and crucial for supporting local economies, jobs and the supply of energy. A reroute has been proposed for the pipeline to steer it away from tribal lands. However, the Bad River Band has continued to demand that the pipeline be removed from the entire watershed, and not just from tribal lands.
Wiggins is concerned that while the court makes its decision, Line 5 remains a ticking time bomb. “In one week alone, nearly half the riverbank eroded away,” said Wiggins. “At this moment, just one more storm could expose the oil pipeline to the river’s current, and we could experience a release of oil akin to what happened in the Yellowstone River in 2011 or the Arkansas River in 2014. This is an imminent threat not just to our way of life, but to the clean waters that sustain all the residents and businesses throughout the Lake Superior basin. The court needs to take action to shut down and purge Line 5 before it’s too late.”
Environmental justice advocates from around the world have rallied behind the tribe. “Enbridge insisted that it would have years before we would see this kind of erosion,” said Beth Wallace, freshwater campaigns manager for the National Wildlife Federation. “Not only is Enbridge knowingly trespassing on sovereign territory, but they appear to be gambling with an entire ecosystem to continue to pocket millions a day.”
Ashley Rudzinski, climate and environment program director for the Groundwork Center for Resilient Communities calls freshwater “the lifeblood of the Great Lakes region.”
“Enbridge’s continued operation of Line 5 represents a direct affront to tribal sovereignty and potential catastrophe for the Bad River and the world’s second largest lake, Lake Superior,” Rudzinski says. “With rising floodwaters inching closer to the over 70-year old pipeline, we need all decision makers, including President Biden, to act with the urgency demanded by this grave situation.”
Debbie Chizewer, managing attorney for Earthjustice, also expressed alarm at the vanishing shoreline around Line 5 in a statement. “We are extremely alarmed to see the shrinking distance between Line 5, which is operating in trespass of the Bad River Band, and the raging river current,” Chizewer stated. “If government officials don’t use their power to shut down Line 5, this disaster will be on their hands.”
“This serious threat to the Bad River and Lake Superior showcases corporate culture placing profit above people’s livelihoods and the environment,” says Jacob Bressette, who owns Lake Effect Surf Shop in the Milwaukee suburb of Shorewood, and is a Bad River Band tribal member. “Continued operation of Line 5 is nothing more than bad business and an accident waiting to happen.”
The United Nations is taking notice of the issue, with its Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues calling for Line 5 to be shut down. In the final report of its annual session, the forum stated that Line 5 “jeopardize[s] the Great Lakes” and “presents a real and credible threat to the treaty-protected fishing rights of Indigenous Peoples in the United States and Canada.”
Bay Mills Indian Community Ogimaakwe (president) Whitney Gravelle said in a statement, “the Anishinabek are the people of the Great Lakes and never before has there been such a unified call for action for both the United States and Canada to abandon failing fossil fuel infrastructure to protect our land and water.”
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