Photo: Taken by an Enbridge drone, the image shows Bad River flooding from spring melt. Such flooding has eroded the river bank and could expose Line 5 oil pipeline, which would increase the risk of structural failure. Image from court filings.
This op-ed first published in the Traverse City Record-Eagle.
Engineered and built 70 years ago, Line 5 is again showing the serious dangers of operating a massive oil pipeline decades past its life expectancy. But, this time, the risk of a breach in the pipeline is in Wisconsin, not in the familiar Straits of Mackinac.
The Bad River Band of Lake Superior Chippewa has filed in U.S. District Court for an emergency shutdown of Line 5 because of a concern of imminent rupture. High flood waters on the Bad River are rapidly eroding the Bad River riverbank where it runs near the buried pipeline.
Lacking adequate engineering protections in its 1950s design, the pipeline’s risk of rupture increases dramatically if the remaining riverbank washes away. Soil provides essential structural support and, without it, the pipeline could rupture from stress. Additionally, trees and debris carried in the high waters could ram and rupture the pipeline.
Less than 15 feet of soil now separate the river from the pipeline at four locations, and, in one spot, a mere 11 feet of bank remains. As recently as November 2022, 30 feet of soil stood between the river and the pipeline. Aerial photos of the area now show a forest completely inundated, and reports from Wisconsin say waters are so dangerous that emergency personnel and even watercraft are unable to access the site.
Today, U.S. District Judge William Conley is expected to hold a hearing in Madison, Wisconsin, to weigh the decision of an emergency shutdown. If the pipeline ruptures, 1 million gallons of crude oil could escape and soon reach Lake Superior, 16 miles downstream.
An oil spill of that magnitude would destroy the way of life for the Bad River Band, halting fishing and wild rice harvesting, and causing many other impacts. Such a spill also would have dire environmental and economic impact on surrounding communities, which rely almost exclusively on tourists seeking recreational opportunities on the area’s unspoiled wild lands, rivers and lakes.
The situation affirms the wisdom of the Bad River Band when it refused to renew the pipeline lease back in 2015 because of environmental concerns. Enbridge, however, refused to shut down the pipeline and, instead, announced plans to build a new section of pipeline around the tribal lands, while operating the existing pipeline in trespass until the new section opens. In an earlier decision, Judge Conley ruled that Enbridge is trespassing, but did not issue a shutdown order for the pipeline and, instead, ordered Enbridge and the tribe to work out a transition plan. Meanwhile, during those proceedings, Enbridge’s own experts testified in court that a shutdown would have a negligible impact on gas prices in the Midwest, well within normal oil market fluctuations.
The window is closing on our chance to protect tribal sovereignty, the Bad River Band’s way of life, and the freshwater our region depends upon.
Line 5 can be shut down immediately and emptied of oil with minimal market disruption — it’s the right thing to do.
Line 5 is running on borrowed time, and time is running out.
Ashley Rudzinski is Climate and Environment Program Director