The Great Lakes Are Under Threat

The Line 5 pipeline has already leaked over 1 million gallons of oil to date and threatens the Great Lakes. Now, the company behind it is proposing a dangerous reroute project.

Canoes and kayaks on the lake next to a larger bridge, holding a sign that says Evict Enbridge.
Protestors paddle next to the Mackinac Bridge at the Pipe Out Paddle Up Flotilla Against the Line 5 pipeline in Mackinaw City, Michigan. (Sarah Rice for Earthjustice)

A battle is raging over the largest surface freshwater system in the world.

The Great Lakes are a defining cultural and ecological anchor for the Midwest. The lakes hold one-fifth of the world’s supply of surface freshwater, supplying drinking water to up to 40 million people in the U.S. and Canada. The iconic system of five lakes spans more than 95,000 miles, creating one of the most diverse watersheds in the world that is home to 3,500 species of plants and wildlife and more than 250 species of fish.

But the Line 5 pipeline puts it all at risk. (How you can help: Until Aug. 4, the Army Corps wants your comments on Line 5.)

What is the Line 5 pipeline?

Despite the lakes’ immense significance, the Canadian oil giant Enbridge has been shuttling toxic fossil fuels through the Great Lakes since the 1950s. The Line 5 pipeline transports up to 23 million gallons of crude oil and gas each day from Wisconsin to Ontario. It runs through hundreds of interconnected waters and the treaty-reserved territory of tribal nations, including the Bay Mills Indian Community in Michigan and the Bad River Band of Lake Superior Chippewa in Wisconsin. None of the Tribes were consulted during Line 5’s construction, yet they have lived with its catastrophic risk for decades.

A long-necked bird completely covered in oil sits in tall grass.

An oil covered bird sits on the side of the Kalamazoo River after an oil spill of approximately 800,000 gallons of crude from the Line 5 pipeline near Marshall, Michigan in 2010. (Michigan Department of Environmental Quality.)

The Bad River Band is fighting in court to have the Line 5 oil pipeline removed from their homeland. Recently, a federal judge ruled that Enbridge has been illegally trespassing for over a decade and must shut down by 2026. However, Enbridge wants to re-route the pipeline to get around the Band’s reservation, keeping the oil and the profits flowing while prolonging the threat to the Band’s home, Lake Superior, and all the Great Lakes.

Recently, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers — the agency tasked with reviewing Enbridge’s Clean Water Act permit application for the reroute project — held a public hearing in Ashland, Wisconsin. Over a hundred community members showed up including Tribal members, high school students, farmers, and environmental advocates. The majority of those who spoke urged the Army Corps to reject the re-route project.

Unacceptable risks loom

Line 5 has a terrible environmental track record. The pipeline has leaked over 1.1 million gallons of oil over its lifespan, polluting important watersheds and surrounding communities. Today, it is operating 20 years past its engineered lifespan, risking malfunction due to corrosion and pressure. Line 5 is also a huge contributor to planet-warming emissions, spewing about 87 million metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalent annually — the equivalent of 19 million gas-powered cars.

Line 5 poses an unacceptable risk of an oil spill in some of the earth’s most sensitive and treasured ecosystems. That includes the Straits of Mackinac, where dual Line 5 pipelines cross under waterways that connect Lakes Huron and Michigan. The straits are the site of creation for the Anishinaabe people, who have hunted, fished, and gathered medicinal plants there since time immemorial and continue to do so today.

The threat of Line 5 has already caused a near emergency. Last spring in Wisconsin, rapid riverbank erosion brought the Bad River current within 11 feet of the pipeline, prompting the Band River Band to ask a judge for an emergency shutdown to prevent an oil spill. The Band has warned for years that the naturally widening river could eventually come dangerously close to the pipeline. In June 2023, a federal court ordered Enbridge to shut down the section of the pipeline that trespasses on the Band’s sovereign lands within three years. Both sides are now challenging that decision before the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals.

A diver swimming near a large pipe on the floor of a lake

A diver examines the Line 5 pipeline in the Straits of Mackinac. (Courtesy of National Wildlife Federation)

Enbridge’s proposals are no solution

Enbridge is now hoping to keep Line 5 on life support by proposing two ill-conceived projects.

One proposal is the new 41-mile section of pipeline that would reroute Line 5 around the Bad River Band’s reservation. This new pipeline would cross nearly 200 sensitive watersheds upstream from the reservation, threatening the Band’s home and drinking water.

As last year’s erosion showed, building a pipeline through the Bad River wetlands is a disaster waiting to happen. The watershed around the Bad River Band’s reservation feeds into Lake Superior, so any pollution from the pipeline would flow downstream to the Great Lakes and through the Kakagon-Bad River Sloughs, a wetland of international importance that harbors the region’s largest bed of wild rice, a cultural staple for Anishinaabe people. There is also a risk that pollution from the pipeline’s construction would contaminate groundwater, which would impact the Band’s drinking water.

Aerial view of riverbank

A tree falls into the Bad River in Wisconsin on June 1, 2023. Rapid erosion had left the Line 5 oil pipeline just a few yards from being exposed to the powerful current of Wisconsin’s Bad River. (Bad River Band of Lake Superior Chippewa)

Enbridge’s second proposal is to build a massive, risky underground tunnel to house a replacement section for the dual pipelines that run through the Straits of Mackinac. Multiple safety experts have warned that the tunnel project design is flawed and untested, and that it could cause a massive explosion and an oil spill in the heart of the Great Lakes. The tunnel project construction also threatens to harm an area that is replete with cultural, economic, and spiritual significance for Bay Mills and other Tribal Nations.

Both proposals threaten the Great Lakes and tribal lands — and our climate. Extending Line 5’s operation needlessly extends our use of, and reliance upon, fossil fuels, which would exacerbate the effects of climate change at a time when the United States must transition to clean energy.

Fighting for our Great Lakes

Both of Enbridge’s proposals — a tunnel through the Straits and a rerouted section of pipeline around the Bad River Band’s reservation — have drawn local, national, and international opposition. Earthjustice is challenging both proposals.

  • The reroute: Earthjustice is representing the Bad River Band in opposing the Line 5 reroute proposal in state and federal reviews.
  • The tunnel: We represent the Bay Mills Indian Community alongside the Native American Rights Fund (NARF) before the Michigan Public Service Commission to prevent the tunnel project in the Straits of Mackinac. In an insult to Tribal Nations, the Commission recently granted Enbridge permits to dig the tunnel. Earthjustice and NARF are now appealing on behalf of four Michigan Tribes.

We are also working to remove and shut down the current pipeline. Last fall, Earthjustice represented a coalition of 63 Tribal Nations from across the Midwest and Canada in an amicus brief supporting Michigan’s Attorney General in a lawsuit to remove the Line 5 pipeline from the heart of the Great Lakes.

Whitney Gravelle, holding feather in her hand, stands on the bank of the lake.

Whitney Gravelle, the president of the Bay Mills Indian Community. (Sarah Rice for Earthjustice)

Originally published on October 12, 2023.

Alison Cagle is a writer at Earthjustice. She is based in San Francisco. Alison tells the stories of the earth: the systems that govern it, the ripple effects of those systems, and the people who are fighting to change them — to protect our planet and all its inhabitants.

We fight to ensure our tribal and Indigenous clients’ natural and cultural resources are protected for future generations.