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Victory for Tribes as Michigan Governor Stops Oil Giant

This page was published 3 years ago. Find the latest on Earthjustice’s work.

(There is a more recent update to read: Oil Giant Enbridge Defies Line 5 Pipeline Shutdown Order, Faces Profit Seizures)

Today, local tribes and communities in Michigan are celebrating a victory for the Great Lakes, the world’s largest source of fresh surface water. Governor Gretchen Whitmer has revoked the 1953 easement for the Line 5 dual pipelines under the Straits of Mackinac for violation of the public trust doctrine. The dual pipelines transport 540,000 barrels of petroleum a day.

In a scathing rebuke, the governor cited Enbridge’s refusal over decades to put in required safety measures for the 67-year-old dual pipelines. In recent years, the pipelines have been repeatedly damaged by shipping anchors, yet Enbridge has refused to meet the easement’s requirements for protecting the Great Lakes from a catastrophic oil spill.

For the Bay Mills Indian Community in Michigan, protecting the Straits of Mackinac is vital for the Tribe’s future. The Straits of Mackinac hold deep cultural, spiritual, and economic significance for Bay Mills; an oil spill would not only devastate the commercial fisheries for commercial but would also threaten Bay Mills’ very identity.

What happens now?

  • The governor’s order requires Enbridge to cease operations of the Line 5 pipelines by May 2021.
  • Michigan’s Department of Natural Resources has filed a lawsuit asking a Michigan circuit court to declare that the Governor’s order properly terminated the 1953 easement and enter a permanent injunction consistent with the revocation of the easement. Effectively, this lawsuit seeks to make it permanent that no more oil will flow through the dual pipelines by summertime.

Is this the end of Line 5?

  • Not yet. Enbridge has been operating the dual pipelines in the Straits pursuant to the now-revoked 1953 easement at the same time as it has been seeking permits to route Line 5 through a proposed $500 million tunnel beneath the Straits.
  • If Enbridge secures the necessary permits to build and reroute the pipeline in the tunnel, a separate easement for the proposed tunnel would allow the oil to continue flowing under the Straits of Mackinac for 99 years.
  • Many state and federal agencies are involved in permitting the proposed tunnel and pipeline reroute.

Why is an oil pipeline in the Straits dangerous?

  • The Straits of Mackinac is a 4-mile-wide waterway that connects Lake Michigan and Lake Huron. The Great Lakes are the largest source of fresh water in the world, supplying drinking water for 48 million people.
  • The Straits of Mackinac is a place of religious and cultural significance to Bay Mills.
  • It is also a place where the Tribe and other surrounding communities hunt and fish.
  • The same pipeline company caused the largest inland oil spill in our nation’s history when another one of its pipelines released nearly one million gallons of oil into Michigan’s Kalamazoo River.

How is Earthjustice involved?

  • Earthjustice, in partnership with the Native American Rights Fund, represents the Bay Mills Indian Community in the Tribe’s fight to protect the Straits and the Tribe’s treaty rights throughout waters in Michigan.
  • With Earthjustice’s help, the Bay Mills Indian Community was granted legal standing to intervene in the Michigan Public Service Commission’s proceedings — becoming the first Tribal Nation to do so. The Public Service Commission will hear witness testimony and legal argument from Bay Mills and other parties in the Spring of 2021 before deciding whether to allow Enbridge to proceed with its tunnel project.
  • Earthjustice, in collaboration with Bay Mills’ scientists, has submitted written comments opposing Enbridge’s proposal to other agencies with permitting authority, including the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and Michigan’s Department of Environment, Great Lakes, and Energy.
Bob Gravelle, Bay Mills tribal citizen, going out on Spectacle Lake in Bay Mills to fish.
Bob Gravelle, Bay Mills tribal citizen, going out on Spectacle Lake in Bay Mills to fish. (Whitney Gravelle)