Economy

River bank erosion prompts the Wisconsin Band to request an emergency shutdown of Line 5

WASHINGTON — Severe spring flooding has made Line 5 an “imminent threat” to Lake Superior and a key Indigenous watershed, lawyers argued Tuesday in an emergency motion to shut down the controversial cross-border pipeline.

Attorneys for the Bad River Band of Lake Superior Chippewa filed their summary motion Tuesday, asking District Court Judge William Conley to make a decision on it before the end of the week.

The filing comes after a joint status report from both the band and the pipeline’s owner, Enbridge Inc., last month acknowledged widespread erosion that has pushed the edges of the Bad River ever closer to the pipeline.

That erosion has only continued at an “alarming rate” in recent days, the filing said, with the river less than five meters away in several places — and just 3.5 meters away in one particular area.

“The erosion continues… and important factors suggest that further bank losses could be significant, leading to exposure and pipeline rupture,” it said.

“These circumstances pose an imminent threat to the Bad River watershed and Lake Superior, and therefore to the rights of the band and the public, and warrant immediate action by this court.”

The band has been on trial with Alberta energy giant Enbridge since 2019 to force the pipeline owner-operator to reroute Line 5 around their traditional territory.

Enbridge has already agreed to this and this work is well underway. The dispute now revolves around whether the company should be obliged to temporarily shut down and rehabilitate the section of pipeline on the Bad River site.

Late last year, Conley – having already rejected calls for the pipeline to be shut down immediately – ordered both parties to come up with contingency plans should the risk of a rupture become too great.

Neither plan was prompted by the floods, which began on April 11 after an abrupt spring meltdown and lasted for days, exacerbated by torrential rains, until the floodwaters finally receded completely on April 23, the report said.

Conley has already indicated he is reluctant to close the pipeline in a big way, citing the potential economic impact in both Canada and the US

The motion suggests that Bad River’s attorneys believe current circumstances could change his mind.

“The band is sensitive to the court’s economic concerns about the pipeline’s disruption,” it said.

“The far greater threat right now is a breach that would not only shut down Line 5, but also devastate the Bad River watershed and Lake Superior in the process.”

Environmental concerns related to Line 5 are in Wisconsin, where the pipeline passes directly through the Bad River Reservation, more than 500 square kilometers of pristine wetland, streams and wilderness.

Enbridge has plans for a 40-mile diversion of Line 5 around the reservation that are more than two years old.

Late last month, the United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Affairs, a UN advisory body, recommended Canada withdraw its support for the pipeline, citing the potential risk of a disaster in the Great Lakes.

The forum called Line 5 “a real and credible threat to the treaty-protected fishing rights of indigenous peoples in the United States and Canada.”

Line 5 is also under legal siege in neighboring Michigan, where the state wants the line to close over fears of a disaster in the Mackinac Strait, the environmentally sensitive area where it runs beneath the Great Lakes.

Business groups and chambers of commerce on both sides of the border, provincial governments and Ottawa have all rallied behind Enbridge in his efforts to portray Line 5’s survival as a mission-critical issue of the continent’s energy security.

Allies have argued in both court filings and public forums that Line 5 is a vital source of energy for several Midwestern states and an essential link for Canadian refineries, which fuel some of Canada’s busiest airports.

This report from The Canadian Press was first published on May 9, 2023.

James McCarten, The Canadian Press

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