Wisconsin tribe sues Enbridge to force pipeline removal

MADISON, Wis. — Members of a Native American tribe in Wisconsin filed a federal lawsuit Tuesday in hopes of forcing Enbridge Inc. to remove sections of a major pipeline that runs across their reservation, arguing it’s becoming more likely the aging line will rupture and cause catastrophic environmental damage.

Enbridge’s 66-year-old Line 5 carries 23 million gallons of crude oil and propane daily from Canada to eastern Michigan. The line runs across 12 miles of the Bad River Band of Lake Superior Chippewa’s swampy reservation in far northern Wisconsin.

The 7,000-member tribe argues that Enbridge’s easements for the line expired in 2013 but the Canadian company has continued to pump oil and gas through Line 5 across the reservation regardless. The tribe in 2017 decided not to renew the easements.

Meanwhile, the threat of a rupture has been growing, the lawsuit contends. The Bad River has been eroding the earth around a portion of the pipeline and could soon carve a new channel across the pipeline’s route, washing away the soil that covers and supports it. That will subject the line to stresses it wasn’t designed to withstand, including swaying under its own weight and impacts from falling trees and other objects.

The lawsuit goes on to allege corrosion and defects in the line’s materials and installation become more apparent as pipelines age.

“Should it fail, then, Line 5 is positioned to discharge crude oil to the Sloughs and into Lake Superior, endangering the staggering profusion of flora and fauna that members of the Band and their forbears have protected and utilized since long before European contact,” the lawsuit says.

Enbridge spokeswoman Juli Kellner said in a statement that the company had just received the lawsuit and needs time to review it. She added that Enbridge has been trying to negotiate easement renewals with the tribe but most of the company’s reservation right of way is covered by either perpetual easements on private land or a 50-year agreement with the tribe that doesn’t expire until 2043.

Enbridge has been under scrutiny since 2010, when its Line 6B pipeline ruptured in southern Michigan, releasing 800,000 gallons of oil into the Kalamazoo River system. Michigan’s Democratic attorney general, Dana Nessel, filed a lawsuit in June seeking to shut down twin portions of Line 5 that run beneath the Straits of Mackinac, narrow waterways that connect Lake Michigan and Lake Huron. Nessel argued that anchor strikes could rupture the line, resulting in a devastating spill.

Enbridge responded to that lawsuit by insisting the dual pipes are in good condition and could operate indefinitely. Duffy said decommissioning the two portions of the line would disrupt the energy market, pointing out that the line meets 55% of Michigan’s propane needs.

The company said it is willing to install a tunnel beneath the lakebed to protect the pipeline and foot the $500 million bill. Nessel said the state can’t wait five or 10 years for Enbridge to build the tunnel.

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