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Michigan tribe says state agency flouted rules issuing Line 5 tunnel permits

The Mackinac Bridge on a stormy day, with dark rain clouds overhead
Lexi Krupp
Interlochen Public Radio
Line 5 splits into twin pipelines just west of the Mackinac Bridge, and crosses along the lakebed for four miles. (Photo: Lexi Krupp / Interlochen Public Radio.)

The waters dividing Michigan’s Upper Peninsula from the rest of the state — an area that was mostly dry land several thousand years ago — is a sacred place for many in the Great Lakes, and especially the Anishinaabek.

“It has been described by a noted ethnohistorian as the Garden of Eden of the Ojibwe people,” says Kathryn Tierney, the tribal attorney for the Bay Mills Indian Community.

“This is where the Great Turtle rose out and formed the first land. This is where the Fish Clan gave up its life to provide food for the people. This is where everything started.”

Now, Bay Mills is trying to protect the cultural landscape as the oil and gas company Enbridge looks to bore a tunnel beneath the Straits of Mackinac to house its Line 5 pipeline. The tribe is challenging a decision by Michigan’s Department of Environment, Great Lakes, and Energy (EGLE) to allow the company to disturb wetlands and bottomlands in the Straits.

The legal action comes after a small state office responsible for protecting historic resources called a survey of the Straits “incomplete.” State archeologists say they’re sure there are more underwater remains they don’t know about yet.

The State Historic Preservation Office recommended “not moving forward with permit approvals until further research is completed,” in a letter late last year. But in January, EGLEissued permits to Enbridge anyway.

In snubbing the recommendation, “EGLE failed to undertake all of the required steps before granting the permit,” says Debbie Chizewer, an attorney for the nonprofit legal group Earthjustice, representing Bay Mills.

She cites state law, which says the agency cannot issue a permit until it considers whether the benefits of a project outweigh the “probable effects” on recognized historic or cultural resources.

“Since they didn’t even assess it, they can’t make that conclusion,” says Tierney.

The challenge also contends that EGLE failed to adequately consult with tribes, as required under an executive directive from the Governor, and undermined public participation by releasing key project documents after the public comment period had closed.

A representative from EGLE told IPR News the permit was issued in compliance with Michigan law. The agency is expected to respond to Bay Mills in the coming weeks. Then, an administrative law judge will decide whether to hold a hearing on the case, which would be months away.

Tierney adds that Bay Mills and other tribes are fighting the Line 5 tunnel project before several state and federal agencies. “This is one battlefront,” she says. “There are many others.”

Lexi Krupp reports on science and the environment. Previously, she worked for Gimlet Media where she helped the Science Vs team distinguish what's fact from what's not. Her work has appeared in Audubon, Popular Science, VICE, and elsewhere.