Wisconsin Indigenous rights and environmental advocates unite to protect the Bad River Band of Lake Superior Chippewa from oil spills

By Jane Houseal, Omar Waheed and Ava Wojnowski

A marker on the shores of Straits of Mackinac indicates where a pipeline enters the water. Courtesy of Mark Hoffman / Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.
A marker on the shores of Straits of Mackinac indicates where a pipeline enters the water. Courtesy of Mark Hoffman / Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.

Superior is defined by water. 

The Wisconsin city juts out to the southwest corner of the biggest of the Great Lakes, and bays and rivers cut into its peninsula. Its name alone connects it to Lake Superior — it is known by the Ojibwe in the area as “gichi-gami ” which means “great sea.” For hundreds of years, this coastal city has been a hub for transport and traders.

But for the last 70 years something else has flowed through the area — oil. 

The Line 5 pipeline snakes from Superior across Michigan to Sarnia, Ontario, serving as Canada’s primary means to transport crude oil through the U.S. 

The section across Wisconsin runs directly through the land of the Bad River Band of Lake Superior Chippewa. The Bad River Band was established in 1854, but the tribe has been living there for thousands of years.

“Bad River has a much deeper meaning to the people of the Bad River nation than just as a source of water and clarity,” says Greg Pils, director of the bureau of environmental analysis and sustainability for the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources. “The Bad River Watershed at large is central to their origin story, and the cultural significance of that area is profound.”

The prospect of a spill is a constant concern, Pils says, and the Bad River Band has advocated for the removal of the pipeline where it crosses its reservation. Now, a federal court ruling could forever change the landscape through the rerouting of the pipeline around Indigenous land. In the meantime, activists are rallying in opposition to its presence.

“This ruling is very significant because this is the first time you have a court giving a certain date for a pipeline to shut down,” says Liz Kirkwood, executive director of For the Love of Water, a nonprofit dedicated to protecting the Great Lakes. “Of course, three years is way too long for a pipeline to be allowed to continue to trespass.”

The Bad River Band is currently unable to speak about the pipeline due to ongoing litigation with the pipeline and energy company.

“There’s a lot of things that have a gag order around it. We’ve been able to give very little information out,” says Patrick Bigboy, vice chairman of the Bad River Band. “We don’t want to give them any ammunition, and they don’t want to give us any ammunition.”

Breaking down the pipeline   

Line 5 was built in 1953 by Canadian multinational corporation Enbridge as part of a larger pipeline system. The pipeline moves roughly 540,000 barrels of crude oil and propane every day. 

The land agreements allowing Enbridge to use land owned by the Nation or individual members of the Bad River Band expired in 2013, Pils says.

In June 2023, a landmark court ruling from U.S. District Judge William Conley ordered the reroute of Line 5 outside of tribal land. The ruling was the first time a judge ruled against a pipeline and ordered a definitive time to move off all sections of land, Kirkwood says. Enbridge has been ordered to cease operation and plans to reroute through the communities of Ashland, Mellen and Hurley by June 2026. Mellen is the only Wisconsin city that will have a new section of the pipeline.

The judge issued an additional order directing Enbridge to pay $5.15 million to the tribe, as well as continuous payments until the pipeline has fully moved off Bad River land. But Enbridge maintains it’s not trespassing on Indigenous land, citing an agreement in 1992 with the Bad River Band to extend operations through 2043.

Enbridge communications specialist Juli Kellner, in a written statement to Curb, said the company “remains open to a negotiated settlement with the Bad River Band.”

One concern about the pipeline is it could rupture, causing a hazardous spill in the nearby waterways. Estimates by the National Wildlife Federation show Line 5 has spilled more than 1.1 million gallons of oil from 33 spills since 1968.

Following a 2010 oil spill into the Kalamazoo River, For the Love of Water helped establish who holds regulatory stewardship over Line 5. As a result, most policy and legal considerations surrounding the pipeline are set by Michigan, Kirkwood says.

“It cannot be the case that we can have multinational corporations dictating the future of how a state government can manage and protect its water,” Kirkwood says. “We know the vital importance of protecting our water. I mean for God’s sake, we’re trying to go to the moon to look for water. We might as well protect the water we have right here.”

Several regulatory government bodies have scrutinized Line 5 since the 2010 oil spill, when 21,000 gallons of oil spilled in the Kalamazoo River near Marshall, Michigan. 

Since 2010, Line 5 through the Straits of Mackinac, the waterway between the Upper and Lower peninsulas of Michigan, became subject to regulations mitigating potential contamination of its waters and preventing further spills. The Michigan Petroleum Task Force and Pipeline Safety Advisory Board were formed as a result.

The pipeline has gained the attention of Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer and Attorney General Dana Nesse, both Democrats, who opposed continued operations of Line 5 in the straits. In 2014, Enbridge notified Michigan of gaps in Line 5’s protective coating in the straits. In 2018, a boat anchor damaged the pipeline, resulting in the area becoming a “no-anchor zone.” 

Michigan’s government and Enbridge came to an agreement in 2018 to build a maintenance tunnel in the straits around the pipeline. The Michigan Public Service Commission approved the construction of the tunnel, which is set to be completed in 2026.

“The Great Lakes Tunnel Project won a key permit approval from the Michigan Public Service Commission which ruled that it was the ‘best option’ to improve safety while still securing the ‘public need’ for fossil fuels,” Kellner wrote in an email. “The MPSC noted that the route, location and design of the replacement pipeline was ‘reasonable’ and a ‘significant improvement’ to the current placement on the bottom of Lake Michigan and that there is no other feasible alternative.”

The appeal is supported by the Canadian government, claiming that shutting down Line 5 “violates the Transit Treaty between the U.S. and Canada and ignores the Pipeline Safety Act,” Kellner wrote.

Advocates unite

Advocacy to shut down the pipeline transcends state lines, however. Groups, including For the Love of Water, are increasingly concerned about the environmental impacts of Line 5, but especially the economic ones in the Great Lakes region.

For the Love of Water commissioned an economic report back in 2018, after the boat anchor blow to Line 5, on the impact of a spill equivalent to 2010’s Kalamazoo oil spill. The report estimates the ensuing economic impact to clean up another oil spill is more than $6 billion. 

Of this $6 billion, $4.8 billion would affect Michigan’s tourism industry. Other fiscal impacts include $61 million in commercial fishing, $233 million in damages to municipal water systems and $485 million against coastal property values, according to the report.

“The Great Lakes is the most important economic engine to the region,” Kirkwood says. “Without these extraordinary waters that are globally unique, these lands and our economies would be nothing.” 

However, young activists are also at the forefront of change. 

“Our country’s greatest asset, especially in the wake of the climate crisis, is the Great Lakes,” says Paige Benish, a high school senior from Sheboygan, on Lake Michigan. 

This summer, Benish started a new chapter of Action for Climate Change Emergency. The group, based in Sheboygan, works to raise awareness about the Line 5 pipeline. Benish and other group members have organized community meetings, tabling events and educational opportunities to get the word out. 

“Most people just don’t know about it,” Benish says.

At these events, the group shares the foundations of climate change, explaining how it works and how it progresses. Then the advocates turn the focus to local issues, such as Line 5. 

“It damages filtration systems. It ruins groundwater. It ruins beaches and marshes,” Benish says. “These have an enormous effect on us.” 

Benish particularly admires the work the Bad River Band has done to protect the Great Lakes. 

“All their actions and everything they’ve put into fighting this,” Benish says. “It’s incredible.”

Future remains unpredictable

Enbridge is currently appealing the decision from Wisconsin to reroute, arguing there are no safety issues and it is not trespassing on Indigenous land, according to an August 2023 statement. 

“Both Enbridge and the Bad River Band are appealing the district court decision in the Bad River case,” Kellner said in the statement. “Enbridge disagrees with the decision on many points including the ordered shutdown of Line 5 by June of 2026.” 

In the reroute, Enbridge reached an agreement with 100% of landowners in the new path. The project will create 700 union jobs, and more than $46 million will be dedicated toward working with Indigenous-owned businesses, and hiring and training for Native American workers, according to Kellner.

Richard Monette, a UW–Madison law professor and director of the Great Lakes Indian Law Center, explains nothing is certain and there is still a lot of ambiguity when it comes to the final decision on this issue. 

“Let’s start out and be clear. None of this is a done deal yet,” Monette says. “The discussion about going through the reservation… is still an open question.”

Construction on the pipeline cannot commence until DNR issues the required permits. 

“We can’t make a decision on whether to permit the project or to deny these permit applications until we have a final environmental impact statement,” Pils says. “And we are making substantial progress on that right now, but it is still not finished.”

Some activists point to Enbridge’s Line 3 pipeline, running through northern Minnesota, as reason enough to halt Line 5’s use. 

During the summer of 2021, then 19-year-old Jessie Burton, a Michigan native and current UW–Madison senior, traveled to Minnesota to live at an action camp, Camp Namewag, organizing against the construction of a Line 3 replacement. This pipeline is the site of the most destructive inland oil spill in the United States, responsible for 1.7 million gallons of oil infiltrating Minnesota waters. This line also runs to Superior. 

Water has always been a big part of Burton’s life. When she was little, she would join her dad, a canoe and kayak enthusiast, on trips to the Kalamazoo River in Michigan to do bug and bird surveys. After an oil spill contaminated parts of the river, Burton recalls not being able to go to certain parts, devastating both her and her dad.

“Seeing [the oil spill] firsthand destroy the Kalamazoo River where I am from was awful,” Burton says. “When I had the opportunity to go to Line 3, it was a no-brainer.”

The Minnesota action camp fought against the pipeline through sit-ins to impede on tree clearing efforts. They allegedly would even lock themselves onto drills to prevent their use, halting construction. 

However, Line 3 replacement construction was executed and the pipeline is now in use. The pipeline cuts across the Fond du Lac reservation in Northern Minnesota and treaty lands of several other bands of Ojibwe.

“We are watching live right now so many of the consequences of Line 3 happening, that is evidence to not use Line 5,” Burton says.

Two men on the Kakagon River in Odanah, Wisconsin. The Line 5 pipeline operates near the Bad River Band of Lake Superior Ojibwe’s land. Courtesy of Mark Hoffman / Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.
Two men on the Kakagon River in Odanah, Wisconsin. The Line 5 pipeline operates near the Bad River Band of Lake Superior Ojibwe’s land. Courtesy of Mark Hoffman / Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.

Moving forward

Since Line 5 travels across state lines,  falling within the jurisdiction of Michigan and Wisconsin, and Canada, it is hard to come together on the issue as there are different regulations in each region. The impact of the pipeline varies in each region. 

“We have not had any coordination with the state of Michigan nor coordination with Canada,” Pils says. “We really can only focus on where we have some sort of jurisdictional authority. Some of the issues they’re looking at in Michigan are very, very different than what we’re looking at here.”

Regardless, the future of the pipeline remains unpredictable. 

“It’s a very, very complicated project on every front you could possibly imagine,” Pils says. “It’s technically complicated. From a regulatory standpoint, it’s complicated. From a social and cultural standpoint, it’s extraordinarily complicated.”

Monette argues the Bad River Band could decide it wants to keep the pipeline on its land because members feel they will be able to monitor it and protect it better than others would.

“A lot of people who might hear that for the first time are either going to be cynical about the tribe, or at least cynical about that decision,” Monette says.

But he maintains the importance of keeping Indigenous rights central to advocacy surrounding the future of Line 5.

“The question is, do you really support the tribe here? Do you just want to put the tribe at the tip of your anti-oils spear?” Monette says. “People should have to confront that.”

As the issue continues, and Wisconsin’s activists sit in limbo on decisions, Benish journeyed to Washington, D.C., to meet with Midwest legislators, including U.S. Sen. Tammy Baldwin. The group urged the junior senator from Wisconsin to take action and shut down Line 5.

“They’ve been provided the information and provided the resources,” Benish says. “It’s now just a decision of whether these people are going to take action.”

Wisconsin’s young activists continue to fight against the pipeline and its danger to the environment, waiting in anticipation to learn the future of Enbridge in the region.

“People even knowing about it means a lot,” Burton says. “It is our water. We need to protect it. It is going to affect all of us.”