The Enbridge Line 5 oil pipeline stretches from Superior, Wisconsin to Sarnia, Ontario. It crosses northern Wisconsin into the Upper Peninsula of Michigan and then under the Straits of Mackinac which connects Lake Michigan and Lake Huron.
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The path of the 64-year-old pipeline also crosses the Bad River Reservation in northeast Wisconsin.
According to Robert Blanchard, the chairman of the Bad River Band Tribal Council, the easement under which Enbridge has been operating the pipeline on the Bad River Reservation expired in 2013. Last week, the council voted not to renew the easement, which could eventually lead to removal of the section of the pipeline that crosses through the reservation.
Blanchard told us that concerns about a leak were the driving factor behind the council’s vote.
“The pipeline is 64 years old,” he said. “We have concerns with that because any time you put metal underground and leave it there for 64 years, the chance of something happening is much greater as the years go by. We have a lot at stake there, so we want to have it removed and taken out before something happens.”
Approximately 12 miles of the 645-mile pipeline are within the Bad River reservation. But those 12 miles cross through the watershed of the Bad River which flows into Lake Superior.
"We have our hunting, we have our fishing, and our harvesting, and collecting our medicines," Blanchard told us. "That would be forever lost if we were to have an oil spill of any type up there."
Blanchard’s concerns about a spill along the pipeline echo those voiced in Michigan over the portion of Line 5 that passes beneath the Straits of Mackinac.
In 2016, a University of Michigan study found that if a rupture was to occur along that underwater section of the pipeline, a total of 720 miles of Great Lakes shoreline could be affected.
Fears of such a spill led to numerous challenges to the pipeline from state lawmakers, a group of environmentalists and tribes, business owners, and, in just the past week, a bipartisan coalition in the U.S. Congress.
Meanwhile, Enbridge has remained committed to keeping Line 5 open. In a statement released after the tribal council voted not to renew the easement, the company said that it was, “surprised to learn of the Bad River Band's decision not to renew individual easements within the reservation for Line 5 after negotiating in good faith for the past several years.”
Blanchard told us that he has not been involved in any such negotiations.
“I’ve been chairman since 2015 and I’ve never been or sat into any negotiations with them regarding that issue,” he said. “So I don’t know where they’re coming from with that.”
While it’s uncertain at this point if Enbridge will challenge the removal of the pipeline in court, some legal experts believe the company’s options may be limited. Enbridge could also attempt to resume or open negotiations with the tribe.
Blanchard said that while he can’t speak for the entire tribal council, he is unlikely to change his mind in the face of any new talks. “We passed the resolution, and it is what it is,” he said.
Listen to our full interview with Robert Blanchard, chairman of the Bad River Band Tribal Council, above.