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Stateside Podcast: Will Line 5 shut down on tribal land?

Lester Graham
Michigan Radio

Earlier this month, Judge William M. Conley, a federal judge in Wisconsin, ordered Enbridge Energy to shut down and relocate the segment of Line 5 that is currently operating on tribal land within the next three years. Additionally, the judge ordered Enbridge to pay the Bad River Band of Lake Superior Chippewa more than $5 million and a portion of Line 5’s profits.

Robert Houle, the Tribal Council secretary for the Bad River Band of Lake Superior Chippewa, said after years of fighting for tribal sovereignty, this decision is a step in the right direction for the Band.

“That land is our ancestral homeland. It’s been set aside for us for perpetuity,” said Houle. “I'd say 95% of our tribal lands are not populated with homes or with industry or any kind of agriculture. It's wilderness, and we want to keep it that way. We want to keep it pristine. We want to keep it preserved. And we want to keep it that way for the next seven generations and beyond.”

Even with Judge Conley’s decision to side with the tribe, Houle said much damage has already been done. With the rapid bank loss seen this spring, there are concerns that shutting down within three years might not be soon enough.

“If we have a serious rainfall, that will cause a rise in the water of the river; we could have a disaster. It's a time bomb just waiting to go off,” said Houle. “The Bad River to us is a living entity. It's a spirit and it moves and it breathes. It's part of our environment. We are part of it. It is a part of us, and it will continue to shift and move,” said Houle.

Because the pipeline is 70 years old, there are also concerns about the durability of the line. In 2010, an Enbridge pipeline broke and leaked more than 843,000 gallons of oil into the Kalamazoo River. And there have been numerous spillselsewhere along the pipeline, too.

Despite these concerns about tribal sovereignty and environmental damage, Enbridge does not believe its operations are a trespass on tribal land and said that Line 5 is operating safely. Paul Eberth, Enbridge’s director of tribal engagement, acknowledged the erosion that is happening along the river bank toward the pipeline, but noted that the pipeline is monitored and that Enbridge has tried to put erosion protection along the river.

When asked if there was room for compromise, Eberth said, “We think the relocation project is the solution. It eliminates the trespass argument and it completely eliminates this matter of the river bank eroding towards the pipeline. In fact, Enbridge submitted permit applications for the relocation project in 2020.”

However, Enbridge plans to appeal the court’s order, and the Band is under no illusion that the discussion of this pipeline ends here.

“We will do everything we can as a tribal entity, as a tribal nation, as a sovereign nation, to remove that pipeline sooner than the 36 months, regardless of what Enbridge does,” stated Houle.

Editor's note: Enbridge is one of Michigan Radio's corporate sponsors.

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Olivia Mouradian recently graduated from the University of Michigan and joined the Stateside team as an intern in May 2023.
Rachel Ishikawa joined Michigan Radio in 2020 as a podcast producer. She produced Kids These Days, a limited-run series that launched in the Summer of 2020.