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Four Michigan tribes appeal Line 5 tunnel permit

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.)
This coverage is made possible through a partnership between IPR and Grist, a nonprofit independent media organization dedicated to telling stories of climate solutions and a just future.

Four Michigan tribes are appealing the state public service commission's decision to allow Canadian oil company Enbridge to build a new section of the Line 5 pipeline in a tunnel under the Straits of Mackinac.

The four tribes appealing the decision are the Bay Mills Indian Community, the Grand Traverse Band of Ottawa and Chippewa Indians, the Little Traverse Bay Band of Odawa Indians, and the Nottawaseppi Huron Band of the Potawatomi.

At the beginning of December, the Michigan Public Service Commission granted Enbridge a permit for the $500-million project, citing the need to reduce the risk of an oil spill in the straits while still allowing natural gas and oil to flow through the pipeline.

Bay Mills President Whitney Gravelle said that decision disregarded critical input from tribes.

“What we actually saw as we participated in the case is that tribal nations’ voices were stymied and prevented from being able to submit evidence of how the Line 5 dual pipelines cause harm to tribal nations,” she said.

Bay Mills is already challenging a separate permit the state department of Environment, Great Lakes and Energy granted the tunnel project in 2021.

Friday was a state holiday, and no one at the Michigan Public Service Commission was available when IPR reached out for comment.

Enbridge spokesperson Ryan Duffy said in an email on Friday that the company is reviewing the most recent appeal of the tunnel project.

“Ultimately, the MPSC agreed with its staff’s conclusions that Line 5 transports critically needed energy for Michigan and the region and placing the Line 5 pipeline in the Great Lakes Tunnel better protects the Great Lakes,” he said.

The company has argued that the project will drastically reduce the chance of a spill.

All 12 of Michigan’s federally recognized tribes oppose the pipeline’s continued operation.

Line 5 carries oil and natural gas liquids 645 miles from northern Wisconsin to Ontario. Two pipelines run four miles along the lakebed of the Straits of Mackinac between lakes Huron and Michigan. Enbridge is proposing to replace those with a 30-inch wide pipeline housed in a concrete tunnel in the bedrock below. That tunnel would be 21 feet wide.

Line 5 faces legal challenges from tribal nations and the state of Michigan, both in the straits and further out.

Concerns about risks posed by the 70-year-old pipeline and the potential tunnel project prompted Governor Gretchen Whitmer to order Enbridge to shut down its operation of the dual pipelines across the straits three years ago, which the company defied.

Tribes say the pipeline threatens their treaty rights, the environment, and their ways of life.

In all, more than 60 tribes support Michigan Attorney General Dana Nessel’s ongoing lawsuit against Line 5, saying in court papers that it poses an “unacceptable risk of an oil spill into the Great Lakes.”

Five of the tribes that hold treaty rights in and around the Straits of Mackinac “were not consulted prior to the construction of the dual pipelines through treaty-reserved waters," they wrote. "This is especially egregious when the very location of the dual pipelines is at the heart of tribal subsistence, commercial and cultural practices."

In Wisconsin, the Bad River Band of Lake Superior Chippewa scored a victory last summer when a federal judge ruled that Enbridge must shut down a section of Line 5 that runs through its reservation lands by 2026. Enbridge appealed the decision. The Bad River Band appealed it as well, saying it wasn’t fast enough.

Gravelle said Bay Mills will continue to show their support for the Bad River Band’s efforts.

“We can get so focused on the Straits of Mackinac, specifically in the state of Michigan,” she said. “But when you connect Bay Mills and Bad River together, you really realize that this pipeline traverses the entirety of the Great Lakes. It's hundreds and hundreds of miles. It's impacting our rivers, our wetlands, our waterways, our drinking wells. And that's why it needs to be decommissioned altogether.”

Briefs for the appeal of the public service commission’s tunnel permit will be submitted in early 2024, according to Earthjustice, which together with the Native American Rights Fund represents Bay Mills.

Before construction begins, Enbridge still needs a federal permit from the Army Corps of Engineers, which will assess the environmental impacts of the tunnel project in the coming years.

Gravelle said she is “cautiously optimistic” about that process.

A decision on the federal permit for the Line 5 tunnel is expected in 2026.

Izzy covers climate change for communities in northern Michigan and around the Great Lakes for IPR through a partnership with Grist.org.