How a Shoddy Environmental Review Could Cause a Catastrophic Oil Spill in Wisconsin

Wisconsin’s inadequate environmental analysis of Enbridge’s rushed and haphazard Line 5 pipeline reroute does grave injustice to frontline Tribal communities.

Former Bad River Tribal Chairman Mike Wiggins Jr. at the Tribe's reservation in Wisconsin where Enbridge's Line 5 pipeline crosses.
Former Bad River Tribal Chairman Mike Wiggins Jr. at the Tribe's reservation in Wisconsin where Enbridge's Line 5 pipeline crosses. (Jaida Grey Eagle for Earthjustice)

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Wisconsin environmental regulators are on the brink of approving the conditions for a disastrous oil spill.

The Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources is responsible for determining whether infrastructure projects proposed in the state are environmentally sound. In December, the department released a deeply flawed draft environmental review of a dangerous plan by Enbridge Energy to relocate part of the Line 5 oil pipeline where it runs through the Bad River watershed. Both the plan and the environmental review utterly failed to analyze the hazards this proposal creates for the surrounding communities, including the Bad River Band of Lake Superior Chippewa, as well as the ecosystems of the surrounding rivers and the local drinking water supply.

Earthjustice fights to secure clean water for all people, and we are representing the Bad River Band to challenge the environmental review of the pipeline. Read on to learn about the glaring deficiencies of Enbridge’s reroute plan, the state’s environmental analysis, and the devastating impact that construction could have.

We need public support in this fight. Learn how you can help.

What is Line 5?

Line 5 is a 645-mile pipeline operated by Enbridge Energy that transports crude oil and natural gas liquids from Superior, Wisconsin to Sarnia, Ontario. The 69-year-old pipeline has ruptured at least 30 times in the past 50 years, releasing more than 1 million gallons of oil. The pipeline crosses over 280 rivers and streams that flow indirectly into the Great Lakes, waters that supply drinking water to over 40 million people. The Great Lakes are the lifeblood of Tribal Nations across Ontario, Wisconsin, Minnesota, and the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, who depend on its connected tributaries, coastal waters, groundwater aquifers, and fish and plant populations to sustain their supply of drinking water, food, and ancient medicines. Safeguarding these tributaries and coastal wetlands is critical to maintaining tribal members’ deep-rooted connection to the natural world, emotional wellbeing, and cultural traditions.

The risk of a spill from Line 5 concerns communities along the pipeline’s path through the upper Midwest. In November 2020, Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer revoked Enbridge’s easement for its Line 5 segment in the Straits of Mackinac, the waterway that connects Lake Michigan and Lake Huron, due to the catastrophic environmental and economic consequences a spill in the Straits would have on the entire Great Lakes region. The Bay Mills Indian Community, an Ojibwe Tribal Nation that has lived along these waters since time immemorial and retains treaty-protected access to them, is advocating and litigating to shut down the pipeline and prevent the proposed tunnel project. (Earthjustice is representing Bay Mills in its legal fight.) However, with the backing of the Canadian government, Enbridge has refused to shut the segment down and has been operating it illegally since May 2021.

Enbridge claims that putting the pipeline in a tunnel underneath the Great Lakes is the solution. The project will exacerbate climate change and the placement of an oil pipeline in an underground tunnel poses a risk of an explosion and environmental catastrophe in the Straits.

How does Line 5 threaten people, waters, and fisheries in Wisconsin?

While national attention on Line 5 has focused on the legal battle in Michigan, another segment of the pipeline is posing an increasingly grave threat farther north in Wisconsin. 

Along the northern Wisconsin border lies Odanah, home to the Bad River (Mashkiiziibii) Band of Lake Superior Chippewa, a Tribal Nation that has lived along the banks of Lake Superior for thousands of years. The Tribe’s Reservation sits within the Bad River watershed, a critical Lake Superior tributary that spans over 1,000 miles of interconnected rivers including the White River (Waabishkaa-ziibi) and the Bad River (Mashkiigon-ziibi). The watershed is the cultural epicenter of the Bad River Band, and keeping it healthy has major environmental and economic significance.

“The White River and Bad River power the fisheries of Lake Superior and inside the watershed itself,” says Bad River Band Chairman Mike Wiggins, Jr. “If you’re trying to protect Lake Superior for the future, you have to start right in Bad River.” 

Enbridge received easements from the Bureau of Indian Affairs to construct the 12-mile segment of Line 5 through the Bad River Reservation in 1953. “At the time, government consultation with tribes about how they might be impacted by such a project was non-existent”, says Edith Leoso, the Bad River Tribal Historic Preservation Officer. “The Tribe was told ‘this pipeline would be going in’”.

Line 5 runs only a few miles from Lake Superior, and is increasingly likely to rupture in the Lake due to its age and a heightened frequency of severe storms brought on by climate change. The Band had been trying to access information from Enbridge in order to evaluate the pipeline’s risks to treaty resources, safety, and the environment since several of its easements expired in 2013. In 2017, following a 500 – year flood in the watershed in 2016, the Bad River Tribal Council denied the easements, requiring Enbridge to remove the 12-mile segment of the pipeline from the Reservation and watershed because of the health and safety risks it presented. But in the five years since, the segment has remained and oil continues to flow.

Instead of removing the pipeline, Enbridge drafted two relocation plans: one within the Reservation boundaries and a second that situated the pipeline around the Reservation but still within the surrounding Bad River watershed. This second re-route does little to prevent the impacts of construction or an oil spill, and poses an even greater threat given the geography of the watershed: the surface water shares an intimate hydrological connection with the groundwater along the pipeline’s relocation, so construction or any leak will quickly contaminate tribal drinking water. The Tribe’s Reservation is located downstream, so discharges from construction, fill changes to water quality, or a spill anywhere upstream will make its way through the watershed and empty into the Reservation.

“I can’t overstress how devastating a spill in the watershed would be,” says Naomi Tillison, Director of the Bad River Mashkiiziibii Natural Resources Department. “The Bad River hatchery is the largest producer of walleye fingerlings in Lake Superior. If the waters that our hatcheries and wild rice beds rely on were contaminated with oil, not only would our supply of food, water and medicines be depleted, our coastal wetlands would be devastated and all of the businesses and people in the region who depend on our fisheries would suffer.”

What’s wrong with Wisconsin’s environmental analysis?

In December 2021, the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources released a Draft Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) of Enbridge’s proposed pipeline relocation route, which did not consider how the new route would impact Tribal rights.

“The state’s environmental review was egregiously inadequate at outlining the threats that the re-route poses to the Bad River Band,” says Earthjustice attorney Stefanie Tsosie, who is working with the Bad River Band to challenge the environmental review. “The state has failed to analyze any of the environmental impacts the new pipeline will have on watersheds.”

The state’s review failed to:

  • Analyze the impacts the project will have on Bad River’s treaty rights and cultural resources;
  • Accurately analyze impacts to rare species;
  • Discuss cumulative impacts that construction and operation would have to the area;
  • Analyze water quality impacts that construction and operation of the pipeline would have, including if proposal will meet Bad River Band’s downstream water quality standards”
  • Disclose impacts from the current operation of the aging Line 5 pipeline;
  • Disclose or analyze the likelihood of and the impacts from an oil spill on the area’s waters, including groundwater aquifers and rivers;
  • Analyze and disclose how construction and operation will affect the area’s wetland ecosystems

How can the public get involved?

  • The Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources is holding a virtual public hearing on February 2nd at 4:00pm CST, where members of the public can express their concerns with the draft environmental analysis.
  • You can also livestream the hearing and attend over the phone by calling 1-888-475-4499. When prompted, enter the following conference ID: 871 8245 2125.
  • Written comments are also being accepted for consideration until April 15th. Submit comments to DNROEEACOMMENTS@WI.GOV 
  • The Army Corps of Engineers has issued a public notice on its requirement that Enbridge obtain an individual permit under the federal Clean Water Act and Rivers and Harbors Act for the Line 5 relocation project. The Army Corps is holding a public comment period and is accepting comments until March 22nd. Submit comments via email to:
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