Fearing Oil Spills, Tribe Sues to Get a Major Pipeline Removed from Its Land

The federal lawsuit warns that erosion could soon leave Enbridge Line 5 exposed to rushing water in Wisconsin’s Bad River, creating a risk of rupture.

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The Bad River flows through part of northern Wisconsin to Lake Superior. Credit: U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Midwest Region
Enbridge Line 5 runs near a meander in the Bad River as it flows through northern Wisconsin toward Lake Superior. The river's banks have been eroding in that area, leaving the pipeline closer to being exposed to rushing water and debris, the lawsuit says. Credit: U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Midwest Region

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Driven by fears of rapid erosion that threatens to expose a crude oil pipeline to rushing water, a Native American tribe is suing pipeline giant Enbridge to force it to remove an aging pipeline whose easement through the reservation has expired.

The Bad River Band of the Lake Superior Tribe of Chippewa Indians filed suit in federal court on July 23 demanding that Enbridge cease operation of its Line 5 pipeline on the Bad River reservation and remove the pipe. Line 5 carries crude oil and other fossil fuels from Superior, Wisconsin, to Sarnia, Ontario, and is part of Canada’s largest oil-export pipeline network.

The Bad River is rapidly scouring away a section of riverbank where the Line 5 pipeline currently lies buried, the lawsuit says. If exposed, the pipeline could rupture, threatening a pristine watershed and river that flows through the reservation and into Lake Superior.


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“While the risk of a rupture or leak of Line 5 is significant along the entire Reservation corridor, the circumstances just east of the location where the pipeline currently passes beneath the Bad River portend a looming disaster,” the lawsuit states. “Here, the Bad River is carving away the banks and soils that conceal and protect the pipeline, such that it will soon be exposed at this location to the full force of the river and to the substantial volume of fallen trees, logs, ice flows, and other material that it conveys.”

In 1963, a decade after the pipeline was installed, the pipe was 320 feet from the river’s edge. That distance had narrowed to approximately 80 feet by 2015. After a severe flood ravaged the area in 2016, the distance is now just 28 feet, according to the lawsuit.

“It could be as soon as the next major flood event that that pipe gets exposed and taken out,” Bad River Tribal Chairman Mike Wiggins Jr. said.

Map: Wisconsin Tribe Sues over Aging Line 5 Pipeline

A spill in the region would be devastating, said Mike Shriberg, National Wildlife Federation’s executive director for the Great Lakes region. The area is known for its wild rice harvest, which the tribe relies on, and for its scenic, well-protected ecosystems, said Shriberg, whose organization is helping to represent the tribe in court.

Line 5 also faces a challenge in Michigan. Last month, Michigan Attorney General Dana Nessel sued Enbridge to decommission Line 5 where it crosses the Straits of Mackinac along the floor of the Great Lakes.

‘This Perpetual Dance with Danger’

In 2013, one of two easements for the 12-mile pipeline corridor through the Bad River Band’s reservation expired. The tribal council voted not to renew the expired easement in 2017 and has since been in mediation with Enbridge, trying to get the company to shut down the line and remove it.

“Enough is enough,” Wiggins said. “Our waterways are the lifeblood of the tribe. They represent our ancestors and our past and they represent all of our hopes and dreams for the future. We are done playing games in dealing with this perpetual dance with danger.”

Enbridge spokesperson Michael Barnes said the company just received the legal filing from the tribe and will review its contents.

“Enbridge has been in good faith negotiations with the Bad River Band of Lake Superior Chippewa Tribe regarding these easements since 2013,” Barnes said in a written statement. “The vast majority of Enbridge’s right of way through the Bad River Reservation is covered by either perpetual easements on private land or a 50-year agreement between Enbridge and the Band, which does not expire until 2043.”

Climate Change Raises the Risks

The region is at risk for more extreme weather and flooding as the planet warms.

The 2018 National Climate Assessment noted that extreme precipitation events in the Midwest had increased in both frequency and intensity since 1901 and are projected to increase through this century.

That adds to the risks for pipelines that cross near rivers or under them.

In the past decade, floodwaters exposed two pipelines under the Yellowstone River in Montana and both ruptured, leaking a total of about 93,000 gallons of oil. Citing seven similar ruptures across the country in the past three years, the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration, the federal regulator responsible for the safe operation of the country’s energy pipelines, issued an advisory to pipeline owners earlier this year urging them to take enact various safeguards.

Michigan’s Fight Over Risk to Great Lakes

In Michigan, Nessel filed a lawsuit over Line 5 on June 27. She said the pipeline’s crossing along the bottom of the Straits of Mackinac poses an “extraordinary, unreasonable threat” and called for the pipeline to be shut down as soon as possible and decommissioned. 

The section of pipe running along the floor of the Straits has lost chunks of its outer coating in recent years and appears to have been dented by a ship’s anchor last year, raising fears of its vulnerability to future leaks.

Map: Enbridge's Lakehead Oil Pipeline System

Former Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder, a Republican, supported a replacement plan in his final weeks in office, and Enbridge is pursuing construction of a tunnel beneath the Straits—while still operting the existing Line 5. The company has already begun taking bore-hole samples beneath the lake floor and says it could complete such a tunnel by 2024.

“Enbridge remains committed to moving forward with the tunnel project which would invest $500 million into the State to ensure security of energy supply and reduce risk to the Straits to virtually zero,” Barnes said.

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