Indigenous groups demand shut down of Michigan pipeline

Indigenous ceremony being performed at the Straits of Mackinac. Photo of people's back in the foreground with the Mackinac Bridge in the background.
Photo of a water ceremony performed at the Straits of Mackinac.(Nikki Caputo and Chris “Mo” Hollis/Wingspan Media Bay. Courtesy of Mills Indian Community)

MICHIGAN — Like many other creation stories, the Anishinaabe’s tale begins with a great flood. In the telling, all the animals rested on a turtle’s back. A muskrat brings soil from below, that the Creator puts on the turtle’s back to make Turtle Island, or North America.

Michigan’s Straits of Mackinac—the passage connecting Lake Michigan to Lake Huron—is where the turtle was thought to reside. Mackinac means “turtle” in a language spoken by Indigienous tribes.

The story highlights the sacredness of the Great Lakes to Indigenous people in the northern-Midwest and Canada regions. But an oil pipeline running through the Straits poses a threat to the environment, according to indigenous groups. The pipeline, commonly referred to as Line 5, has been thrust back into the spotlight after Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer ordered a shutdown of the line that the oil company refused, resulting in a high-profile legal dispute between the state and the oil company.

Line 5 is a 68 years old oil and natural gas dual pipeline that transports over half a million gallons per day through Canada and Michigan’s Great Lakes. It is operated by oil giant Enbridge Energy, a multinational pipeline company based in Alberta, Canada. According to Enbridge, Line 5 supplies 65% of propane in the Upper Peninsula, and 55% of propane for the entire state.

After a different pipeline ruptured in Michigan in 2010, Line 5 has been the center of debate for the last several years, owing primarily to its geography. An oil spill at this location could be disastrous — because of its close proximity to Lake Michigan, there would be no chance to prevent a spill from entering the lake. Indigenous groups in Michigan have been advocating for the pipeline to be shut down, asserting that Enbridge is in violation of their treaty rights.

Treaty rights

Whitney Gravelle is the current council president of the Bay Mills Indian Community, a federally recognized sovereign tribal nation located in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. Gravelle herself has been heavily involved in the fight against Line 5, participating and speaking at local protests.

“The Straits of Mackinac are more than just a waterway — they are a place of ongoing spiritual significance to the Bay Mills community,” she explained.

In May, the Bay Mills Council passed a resolution to banish Enbridge from their land, a serious action that is only taken after egregious acts have posed harm to their people, treaty rights, and resources.

Under the 1836 Treaty of Washington, an agreement between the federal government and Indigenous nations, Bay Mills and several other tribes ceded land and water to the United States for the creation of Michigan. They gave up 14 million acres of land and 13 million acres of water to form what would become the northern half of the Lower Peninsula and the eastern half of the Upper Peninsula.

However, the tribes still reserved the right to fishing, hunting and gathering within that ceded territory. In the Bay Mills Indian Community, more than half of households today rely on the treaty rights to fish in order to put food on the table and provide a source of income from selling the fish.

In a situation like the Line 5 debate, the rights of tribal nations “predate and supersede any of Enbridge’s interests involved in the case,” said Gravelle. This is due not only to their inherent sovereignty as tribal nations, but also to the fact that all treaties made under the United States are considered the supreme law of the land. It is the responsibility of state governments to ensure that treaty rights remain available and meaningful to tribal nations, she added.

Water also holds a cultural significance to the native tribes. Gravelle said the Straits of Mackinac are important to local Indigenous communities not only because of their legal entitlement, but also because of “the interconnectedness of the land, water, and people.”

Enbridge’s authorization

Line 5 was authorized in 1953, when the State of Michigan granted an easement to Enbridge, then called Lakehead Pipeline Company. Lakehead paid $2,450 for the easement, allowing the company to construct and maintain pipelines located in the Straits of Mackinac for the purpose of transporting petroleum and other products, according to the official document.

The pipeline was installed when most Michigan tribes were “administratively terminated” by the federal government, and “didn’t have the legal resources to fight its installation,” said Matthew Fletcher, director of the Indigenous Law and Policy Center at Michigan State University and member of the Grand Traverse Band of Ottawa and Chippewa Indians.

Now, Whitmer, who since campaigning for governor in 2018 has promised to protect Michigan’s Great Lakes, seeks to revoke that authorization.

Last November, Whitmer filed a lawsuit to revoke the 1953 easement and gave Enbridge until May 13 to stop transporting oil under the Straits of Mackinac. In an op-ed in the Washington Post, she defended her decision, detailing the environmental risks.

“I will not sit idle as this time bomb keeps ticking,” she wrote.

Enbridge, however, has refused to shut down Line 5, claiming it wasn’t within the state’s power to deny them access and that their ability to operate the pipeline was protected under the federal Pipeline Safety Act. Enbridge is still operating, and Whitmer has threatened to seize the profits Enbridge has made on Line 5 since May 13. The two are now battling it out to determine whether the federal or state court will reside over the case. Mediations between the parties were expected to wrap up by late August. On Monday, Canada invoked a 1977 pipeline treaty with the U.S. in an attempt to get the federal government involved.

Enbridge is planning to spend $500 million on a tunnel around Line 5 with the purpose of protecting the pipeline from spills. They are currently seeking permits to reroute Line 5 through the tunnel, and are nearly done with the design work.

However, critics are skeptical. Debbie Chizewer is the managing attorney at the Midwest Regional Office for Earthjustice, an environmental organization. “It doesn’t make sense for Enbridge to invest half a billion dollars into infrastructure that wouldn’t be needed in 10 years or less, after Michigan transitions away from fossil fuels,” she said.

Enbridge’s track record

Opponents of the pipeline have developed a distrust of Enbridge given the company’s history of spills. Though Line 5 has not had an incident in the Straits, there have been nearly 30 incidents in total along the pipeline’s 600-mile stretch since 1968.

Perhaps the most infamous Enbridge spill in the minds of Indigenous groups is that of Line 6b in Kalamazoo, one of the largest inland oil spills in U.S history. In July 2010, a six-foot rupture in the pipe spilled over 840,000 gallons of crude oil into a wetland.

But the spill wasn’t the only issue. The company continued to pump oil for 17 hours after the alarms first went off in the Enbridge control center in Alberta, because they incorrectly assumed it was a false alarm. The company paid for the cleanup.

The biggest priority for responders at the time was to prevent the oil from reaching Lake Michigan, where it could have had disastrous impacts on the ecosystem and environment. And they were successful: the oil was stopped 14 miles downstream.

The spill got people thinking about what other pipelines run through the state. “It occured to me that if something like that happened here, I would be right in the thick of it,” said Kathie Brosemer, environmental director for the Sault Tribe of Chippewa Indians in the Upper Peninsula.

They found that Line 5 differs significantly from Line 6b because of its geography. Line 5 is roughly 1.5 miles from Lake Michigan at any point in a 30-mile stretch in the Straits, meaning that it would be impossible to prevent an oil spill from reaching Lake Michigan.

After the Line 6B incident, Enbridge was ordered by the state and the EPA to make changes to Line 5 and Line 3, a Minnesota pipeline. However, the Sault Tribe and other tribal organizations had been left out of negotiations on Line 5, and plans for dealing with future spills were made without their consent or knowledge until it was a “done deal,” according to Brosemer.

A tunnel project would not “remove the dread” of the oil being so close to the Great Lakes, said Brosemer. The only solution that could do that would be a shutdown of the line.<

Oil spill risk factors

Today, there are several risk factors for a potential spill, one of which is the current-induced stress on the pipeline. Retired Dow Chemical engineer Ed Timm, who authored a technical analysis on Line 5, told MLive that the pipeline was “one peak current away from failure.”

Another major risk factor is anchor strikes: Line 5 is situated in a busy shipping canal and lies perpendicular to the route ships take in the Straits. Many are worried that ships dropping anchors could hit the pipeline and cause an oil spill. And the fears aren’t unfounded.

In the middle of a blizzard on April 1, 2018, the Sault Tribe received word that an electrical transmission line under the Straits of Mackinac had been severed.

It later turned out that a commercial ship had come through, dragging its anchor along the bottom of the Straits and hitting the electric cables.

What the tribe wasn’t notified of until days later was that the twin pipes of Line 5 were hit. One pipe was deeply scored and gouged, the other less damaged.

“This is everybody’s nightmare situation: an anchor strike that actually damages the pipe,” said Brosemer. “An anchor strike could’ve been an absolute catastrophe… That April Fool’s, everybody had a big wakeup call about what this could be.”

This story is part of a series by Stanford students who were based in different parts of the United States due to COVID.


  • Sarah Raza

    Sarah Raza is currently working towards a bachelor’s degree in international relations at Stanford University. She cares deeply about human rights and has worked with local and international organizations on Muslim-American issues. Sarah hopes to use journalism as a means to further discussions on human rights. She currently tutors at the Hume Center for Writing and Communication. She is Pakistani-American and grew up in Michigan.

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