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Bad River Band offers Enbridge a solution to address erosion near Line 5

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The Bad River Band of Lake Superior Chippewa has proposed a new project to mitigate immediate erosion risks along the Line 5 oil pipeline. The move comes against the backdrop of a fierce conflict between the band and Canadian oil giant Enbridge.

On July 5, Bad River Band Chairman Robert Blanchard sent a letter to Enbridge proposing a new project to stem the erosion that has brought the Bad River close to the Line 5 pipeline. In the letter, obtained by the Journal Sentinel, Blanchard states that the Bad River Band is “asking Enbridge for cooperation.”

The group believes that their land and way of life are becoming increasingly threatened over time.

The Mashkiiziibii – or Bad River – flows through the band’s land before emptying into Lake Superior about 10 miles east of Ashland. Flooding and erosion along the river have pushed a bank, known as the meander, to within 11 feet of the pipeline at one point. When the band first filed suit against the Canadian oil giant in 2019, the bank stood more than 300 feet away.

In the letter, Chairman Blanchard stated that while the group believes Enbridge should end its incursions and leave the watershed, the project will help “protect the pristine nature of Mashkiiziibii and its wetlands as long as Enbridge continues its incursions.”

Enbridge proposed a solution late last year, but it was not approved.

Blanchard told the Journal Sentinel that Enbridge’s previous proposals to reduce risks in the river bend did not comply with environmental laws and violated the tribe’s treaty rights and the ability of the Bad River floodplain to function during floods.

The band’s proposed project minimizes environmental and cultural impacts, requires shorter installation times and poses fewer construction risks, the letter said. The band’s natural resources department worked with Wright Water Engineers, a Denver-based environmental and civil engineering firm.

The band proposes using log jacks and interlocking and removable logs manufactured off-site and transported to an area near the meander. The project avoids the use of heavy machinery in the river or on the banks and does not require new roads or bridges. The new solution will also require 90 percent fewer helicopter flights than Enbridge’s recent proposal, according to the letter.

The logs can also be completely removed, allowing the river to continue its natural flow even after the project is completed, which is critical to the band, Blanchard said.

Blanchard has asked that the band’s Department of Natural Resources, the consulting firm and Enbridge work together to finalize the details. The parties met for the first time on July 10 to begin discussing the project.

Enbridge spokeswoman Juli Kellner said the company recently learned of the project’s concept. “We received a few more details over the weekend and are pleased to have been invited by the band to learn more and work together on erosion control at the meander,” she said.

Blanchard said the band shouldn’t be in this situation at all.

“Responsible companies, including other oil companies, respect tribal rights without waiting for a court order. Enbridge could eliminate the risk entirely by doing the same here,” Blanchard told the Journal Sentinel. “But until it does, or until the courts compel it to respect our legal rights, we have no choice but to explore every responsible option to protect our sacred lands and waters.”

More: The Great Lakes tribes teach that “water is life,” yet they are forced to fight for their voice in protecting it.

Bad River Band and Enbridge await appeals court decision

The chairman’s letter comes against the backdrop of an ongoing legal dispute between the Bad River Band and the fossil fuel company.

The tribal group filed suit against Enbridge in 2019, demanding that the company remove the Line 5 pipeline, which operated on 12 miles of their land under an expired easement. Tribal officials had decided not to renew the easement more than a decade ago out of fear of environmental damage.

In June 2023, a federal judge ordered Enbridge to remove the pipeline from tribal lands within three years or face shutdown. Both sides appealed the decision last year, and oral arguments were heard in February before the 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.

The most recent development came in April, when the Biden administration released a long-awaited statement on the pipeline.

The amicus curiae brief contained mixed views, with the Justice Department declaring that Enbridge was liable for trespassing on the band’s land but failing to take a position on the transit agreement that prevents the interruption of oil flow between the U.S. and Canada.

Ultimately, the band and the Canadian oil company are still waiting for a decision from the appeals court.

More: “A new chapter in a very old story”: Documentary shows the Bad River Band’s fight against Line 5

Enbridge offered settlement, Bad River Band said its contract rights were not for sale

This is not the first public exchange of letters between the band and the oil giant this year.

In March, Enbridge posted a letter to the tribe on its website offering $80 million to settle past disputes and expressing a willingness to work with the tribe to find solutions. In his response, Chairman Blanchard said the tribe’s homeland, treaty rights and way of life are not for sale.

Tribes and environmental groups in the region have long said the pipeline poses one of the greatest threats to the Great Lakes and violates tribal sovereignty and treaty rights. According to the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration’s database, there have been 35 spills on Line 5 during its roughly 70 years of operation, releasing a total of more than 1.13 million gallons of oil into the environment.

Enbridge expects thousands of jobs and billions in economic output to be lost if Line 5 is shut down. The company also says oil prices would rise and refineries would be at risk.

Meanwhile, Enbridge is working to reroute the Line 5 pipeline around the Bad River Band area. The diversion project, proposed ten years ago, has not yet been fully approved.

More: Visiting Madeline Island this summer? A new exhibit highlights the Ojibwe’s journey to the Great Lakes

Caitlin Looby is a Report for America Corps member who writes about the environment and the Great Lakes. Reach her at [email protected] or follow her on X @caitlooby.

Please support the journalism that informs our democracy with a tax-deductible donation to this reporting initiative at jsonline.com/RFA or by check to The GroundTruth Project with the subject line “Report for America Milwaukee Journal Sentinel Campaign.” Address: The GroundTruth Project, Lockbox Services, 9450 SW Gemini Dr, PMB 46837, Beaverton, Oregon 97008-7105.

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