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Emails show Enbridge private security keeping tabs on activists in the Straits of Mackinac

People on kayaks work together to hold up a sign that says "SHUT DOWN LINE 5".
Kaye LaFond
Interlochen Public Radio
Water protectors gather in kayaks for a yearly protest of Enbridge's Line 5, the oil pipeline that runs under the Straits of Mackinac. Enbridge hired private security to keep track of water protectors this summer.

Interlochen Public Radio has obtained emails between a private security contractor working for Enbridge Energy and several law enforcement agencies near the Straits of Mackinac.

The emails show the contractor kept tabs on anti-Line 5 activists (known as water protectors) in the Straits of Mackinac this summer. He shared information about their camp, protests and social media posts with local law enforcement.

The contractor, David Egeler, is employed by a firm called Merrills Investigations. He also appears to be a former commander at the Washtenaw County Sheriff's Department.

Many of his emails detail what the water protectors were doing or publicly posting on social media.

“A couple of Line 5 protestors have established a base at the McGulpin Point Park (across the street from the Enbridge Mackinaw Station),” he wrote in an email dated May 31. “[They] are livestreaming on Facebook trying to get more support and more ‘medicine’ (they appear to be Native American).”

Credit Kaye LaFond / Interlochen Public Radio
Interlochen Public Radio
Screenshot of an email sent by David Egeler.

Some of the e-mails are more preemptive and talk about the possibility of demonstrations surrounding certain events, like some Line 5 information sessions that were held in the area.

Nathan Wright is a citizen of the Sault Ste. Marie Tribe of Chippewa Indians and one of the leaders of the water protector group, which is known as MackinawOde (Heart of the Turtle).

Wright says their group is entirely peaceful. He and others had assumed Enbridge security was watching them, but he called the contents of the e-mails “creepy.”

Egeler sent out an email in advance of Labor Day weekend (a large demonstration has happened at the straits every Labor Day weekend for the last few years).

“In light of the recent mass shootings across the country, I have confirmed with the Merrills and Enbridge social media monitoring staff that if any posts/communications should appear which indicate immediate harmful or dangerous activity (especially with the Bridge Walk and other protest activity scheduled for Labor Day Weekend), we are immediately notifying the appropriate LE agencies,” wrote Egeler. “This may seem obvious, however, I am ensuring timely notifications which will circumvent normal communication channels and endless email strings.”

Wright says it’s disturbing that Egeler would draw such a connection.

“You don't preface an email talking about, hey there's mass shootings going on around the country,” he says. “And then say hey by the way, there's Indians getting together over at this event, and we need to keep a careful eye on them.”

Egeler declined to comment on the emails.

In June, Egeler invited various law enforcement agencies to a meeting at the Michigan State Police post in St. Ignace. Lieutenant John Schneider is the commander at that post, and says he approved the meeting being held there.

“He just wanted to meet other entities in reference to who did security in the different agencies around the area,” says Schneider. “Just so he could put a name with a face, and just basically meet and greet us, to let us know that he was involved in a security component with the Enbridge company.”

Egeler was in contact with personnel from the Michigan State Police and Emmet, Cheboygan and Mackinaw county law enforcement, as well as multiple municipal police forces. U.S. Coast Guard emails also show up in the recipient lists.

Credit Kaye LaFond / Interlochen Public Radio
Interlochen Public Radio
Screenshot of an email sent by David Egeler.

However, no tribal law enforcement personnel were included on the emails, even though multiple tribes patrol the waters around the Straits. Bryan Newland, Chairman of the Bay Mills Indian Community, confirmed that nobody reached out to Bay Mills law enforcement.

“The fact that myself and other elected leaders of tribes have taken a stance against the pipeline doesn't mean that our law enforcement agencies don't have an interest in understanding what's going on at the Straits with the pipeline,” says Newland. “It would be just like Enbridge reaching out to the Michigan State Police despite the fact that our attorney general and governor are opposed to the pipeline in the straits.”

According to an email sent in June, Mr. Egeler had attended a “Native American Awareness Training” hosted by 7th Legacy Environmental, LLC. That consulting firm is headed, in part, by Desmond Berry, the former director of the Natural Resources Department at the Grand Traverse Band of Ottawa and Chippewa Indians.

Berry surprised many earlier this year when he quit his job at the tribe and and took on Enbridge Energy as one of his firm’s clients.

There is a documented history of pipeline companies hiring private security to surveil protestors. It happened at Standing Rock, the Indigenous-led movement against the Dakota Access Pipeline, on a large scale.

Kyle Whyte is a professor at Michigan State University and a citizen of the Citizen Potawatomi Nation who has written about Standing Rock. He says there’s a trend of companies trying to control public advocacy behind the scenes.

“Instead of companies proposing risky projects being subject to oversight, it’s citizens concerned about preventing risks who are subject to oversight from those seeking to impose the risks,” he says. “There is a problem of mutual accountability here.”

Holly T. Bird is the co-executive director of the Water Protector Legal Collective, and she provided legal services to activists at Standing Rock.

She says the email referencing mass shootings sounded like somebody trying to make work for themselves.

“It almost looked like he was getting to the end of his contract, and he started ramping up his language,” she says.

She thinks this kind of monitoring by private security actually makes people less safe.

Enbridge spokesperson Ryan Duffy said in an email statement that Enbridge welcomes discussion on their projects and respects the right to peaceful protests.

“The safety of our employees, the public and the environment is our top priority at Enbridge, and therefore we take appropriate action to ensure the security of all of our facilities,” said Duffy. “We will refrain from discussing our security measures publicly as doing so may compromise the safety and security of our facilities and our people.”

Kaye LaFond
Kaye is an alumnus of Michigan Tech's environmental engineering program. She got her start making maps for the Traverse City-Based water news organization Circle of Blue, and, since then, she's been pretty devoted to science communication and data visualization.