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Whitney Gravelle +  Bay Mills Indian Community

Whitney Gravelle, president of the Bay Mills Indian Community in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, was recently in Chicago at the Dirksen Federal Courthouse to challenge the Line 5 pipeline. Chairman Robert Blanchard of the Bad River Tribe and its lead attorney Riyaz Kanji were with her.

Millions of gallons of fossil fuel could move through a new pipeline under the Great Lakes

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Tribal leaders from the Midwest are taking a stand against a crude oil and natural gas liquids pipeline that carries millions of gallons of fossil fuels via the lakebed of the Mackinac Strait that separates Lake Michigan and Lake Huron.

They say the Line 5 pipeline, as it’s known, is a threat to the Great Lakes. The pipeline, owned by Canadian energy company Enbridge has already spilled more than a million gallons of oil since the first recorded leak in 1968. Now Enbridge wants to start over and reroute Line 5 into a plan called the Great Lakes Tunnel Project.

Opponents have filed a federal lawsuit in Chicago, and environmentalists are appealing to state and federal agencies to stop the proposed pipeline and tunnel to avert more — and potentially larger — spills.

Enbridge wants to bury its new, concrete-lined tunnel and pipeline deep beneath the lakebed, which the company said will only serve to make a safe pipeline safer.

“If there’s an oil spill, it destroys the Great Lakes,” said Whitney Gravelle, president of the Bay Mills Indian Community in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. She was recently in Chicago to challenge Enbridge’s permit application.

Why the Line 5 pipeline exists

Line 5 currently spans 645 miles. The pipeline begins in northern Wisconsin and ends at the border between Michigan and Canada. Built in 1953, the dual pipeline system can move approximately 23 million gallons of fossil fuel a day. Proponents of the pipeline say Michigan counts on it to stay warm in the winter. The majority of the state’s propane flows through Line 5.

Crucially, four miles of the pipeline traverse the lakebed of the Straits of Mackinac, which divides lakes Michigan and Huron in two. Because of the energy company’s history of leaks, opponents want to shut it down.

“The Great Lakes provide and are 84% of North America’s surface freshwater,” Gravelle said. “Yet they’re not being protected as this national resource that provides for so many and are constantly being put in danger, most specifically by Line 5.”

Modeling from the University of Michigan’s Water Center found that more than 700 miles of shoreline are vulnerable to a spill — potentially endangering the drinking water supply of more than 40 million people and the precious ecosystems that support thriving fisheries.

In a statement to WBEZ, Enbridge called the pipeline an “economic and energy lifeline for Canada and the U.S.”

“It remains the safest, most efficient way to transport fuels to refineries and markets, and it supports thousands of jobs on both sides of the border,” the statement said. “No alternative, existing or proposed, can provide the needed energy supplied by Line 5.”

Enbridge is currently facing several legal challenges, including one from the Bad River Band of Lake Superior Chippewa and another from the state of Michigan. Both lawsuits claim the energy company is trespassing due to expired easements and potentially threatening the environment.

If Enbridge wins, Gravelle said she worries that precedent could endanger tribal nations everywhere.

“If Enbridge energy’s interpretations are adopted by the court, what they’re doing is they’re giving not only Enbridge energy but also every other fossil fuel company permission to trespass, destroy and take advantage of tribal nations across the U.S. with no legal ramification whatsoever,” Gravelle said.

What happens now with Line 5?

In 2020, due to environmental concerns, Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer revoked Enbridge’s easement through the state and called for the pipeline to halt operations.

Enbridge never ceased operations. Instead it doubled down and pushed back against the governor’s orders. The energy company has since introduced a plan to bore a deep tunnel under the Straits of Mackinac for its new pipeline and continue operations for another 99 years — effectively breathing new life into the controversial pipeline.

Enbridge maintains it will continue to operate Line 5 while it pursues the permits it needs to secure the construction of its new pipeline.

Last December, Michigan’s utility regulator approved a permit for Enbridge to build the Line 5 tunnel and pipeline replacement project. But it still faces several hurdles. Before Enbridge can begin digging its tunnel, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers must approve its federal permit, and the corps plans to publish its decision in 2026. Gravelle said the fight to save the Great Lakes isn’t just a tribal fight; it’s a fight that should include everyone.

“There’s still a lot of battles awaiting all tribal nations in the Great Lakes as Enbridge continues to try and ensure that they can continue to operate Line 5 indefinitely,” Gravelle said.

If the courts rule in favor of Enbridge and upends long-standing tribal treaties, Gravelle said the sovereignty of every tribe in the country is at stake.

“And if that right is not acknowledged by U.S. courts, it is going to destroy and have a very detrimental impact on tribes — all 578 across the United States,” Gravelle said.

Juanpablo Ramirez-Franco covers climate change and the environment for WBEZ and Grist. Follow him on X at @__juanpab.

This story has been updated to make clear that Line 5 is a natural gas liquids pipeline.

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