Analysis, Advocates say Northern Wisconsin Oil Pipeline Threatens Drinking Water, Lake Superior



By JT Cestkowski, Julian Emerson

February 4, 2022

The battlelines are drawn as activists attempt to sway the Department of Natural Resources to kill a proposed pipeline project.

Activists and concerned citizens raised their voices Wednesday against the future of a gas and oil pipeline that runs across northern Wisconsin and through a native reservation. 

Enbridge Inc., a Canadian oil company, wants to reroute a 42-mile portion of its Line 5, which carries oil from Superior to Canada by way of Michigan, around the Bad River Band reservation near Ashland.

The Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources (DNR) has to sign off on the new path for the pipe and is going through its established process for considering projects like Line 5. The DNR held a hearing Wednesday evening, stretching into the early morning hours Thursday, on a draft environmental impact statement (EIS) that evaluated potential hazards posed by the project like its impacts on rivers and endangered species.

The DNR ran the meeting. The proceeding was intended only as a forum to gather feedback on the plans as they had been presented by Enbridge to the state. The company does not have a hand in guiding the department’s hearings.

Failing and Obsolete

The Bad River Band of Lake Superior Chippewa filed a lawsuit in summer 2019 to halt use of the 12-mile line on its property. The tribe argued the pipeline threatens the ecology of the Bad River, part of the Lake Superior watershed. The lawsuit also seeks the removal of existing line and financial reparations, and tribal members have noted numerous leaks in the line. 

The company is moving the line, but only just beyond the bounds of the reservation and on a route that still crosses the Bad River.

“We shouldn’t even be here today,” Bad River Band Chairman Mike Wiggins Jr. said. “An environmental impact statement for a reroute proposal for Line 5, when there’s really no justification for the line and there has been no exploration of alternatives, makes this process a little moot in my book.” 

The chairman went on to characterize the line as “failing” and “obsolete.”

“It’s time for Line 5 to go,” he said. “The only thing we have ever asked of the oil company is to get out of our water. And that has been rejected, that has been disrespected, and essentially ignored.”

Among the more than 100 speakers weighing in against the Line 5 project during the 10-hour public hearing was Tony Wilkin Gibart, executive director of Midwest Environmental Advocates. The draft environmental review for the project falls short of “what the law requires and what the people of Wisconsin deserve,” he said. 

“Given the significant risks associated with pipeline construction, the DNR must do more by holding Enbridge’s proposal to the highest possible environmental scrutiny,” Wilkin Gibart said. 

Rob Lee, Midwest Environmental Advocates staff attorney, said Enbridge’s plan to reconstruct Line 5 threatens the surrounding natural resources. 

“We support those who have asked the DNR for more than just a cursory environmental analysis of the proposal,” Lee said. “They want a meaningful and thorough look at how their communities and the surrounding landscape would be harmed by this project.”

Wiggins said Enbridge had an attitude of trying to buy its way out of problems.

“We told them to take their $24 million they offered us to exist in our drinking water and put it toward their reroute project out of our watershed,” Wiggins said.

Politicians Speak Up

Backers of the pipeline project said it provides much-needed good-paying jobs in northern Wisconsin and is necessary to continue to provide energy in the region. They said new technologies allow for a safer pipeline that is less likely to leak.

US Rep. Tom Tiffany (R-Hazelhurst), who represents the area through which the reroute would run, was one of the relatively few voices to speak in favor of the pipeline during the hearing.

“Remember there are two major pipeline companies in Wisconsin that employ your neighbors,” Tiffany said. “It will provide affordable energy to northern Wisconsin.”

Tiffany’s campaign accepted a $2,500 contribution from Enbridge, according to federal campaign finance records.

“That is why it is so important to complete this project, because it’s good for all of us and it is good to make sure America stays strong through the 21st century,” Tiffany said of the pipeline. 

Scientists have found the world has just years to drastically reduce carbon dioxide emissions from sources like the fossil fuels in the Line 5 pipeline to avert irreversible effects of climate change.

Outagamie County Executive and US Senate candidate Tom Nelson testified against Line 5, saying the 64-year-old pipeline is “a rotten artery of fossil fuels” that would do little to reduce energy costs for Wisconsinites.

“Line 5 should be stopped, plain and simple,” Nelson said in prepared remarks. “It’s an aging relic that threatens our environment, undermines the next generation of Wisconsin jobs, places an undue burden of risk on Wisconsin localities and violates the heritage and sovereignty of Wisconsin’s First Peoples.”

The Risks

The draft environmental impact statement analyzes the potential for harm to the surrounding natural resources. Though crucially, this analysis extends just the immediate area and not the larger climate impacts of refreshing fossil fuel infrastructure.

The EIS was written in conjunction between the DNR and TRC Environmental Corporation, a consulting firm that on its website boasts of “strong relationships” with Canadian oil and gas companies, including Enbridge.

While the statement includes references to the amount of greenhouse gas emissions produced by constructing the pipeline, it makes no mention of the quantity of carbon dioxide generated from the oil and gas that will flow through the line. Nor does it attempt to estimate the greenhouse gas emissions prevented by simply decommissioning the line.

The report details 16 oil spills in Wisconsin since 2000 releasing nearly 13,000 barrels of oil. The EIS said that, because the new route would replace an already existing pipeline, the state would need to expect oil spills to continue on an annual basis.

Other speakers said the proposed rerouting would adversely impact the region’s environment. They pointed to problems with other Enbridge pipelines—most notably a July 2010 oil spill in Michigan in which 843,000 gallons of crude oil leaked into the Kalamazoo River—as evidence of the pipeline’s potential effect on its surroundings.

The property surrounding the proposed Line 5 reconstruction contains numerous wetlands sites and drains into Lake Superior. Environmental groups said the proposed line would cross nearly 200 bodies of water. 

The EIS determined that the new segment of Line 5 will cross 61 streams, including the Bad River—the same crossing that prompted the Bad River Band to file suit over the pipeline. Several of the rivers that could be crossed by the pipeline “support extensive wetlands, wild rice beds, and undeveloped shoreline,” according to the EIS.

“This is a power center that drives the overall health of Lake Superior as the grandmother of all the Great Lakes,” Wiggins said.

DNR staff will consider testimony provided at the hearing, as well as written comments sent by March 4, before issuing a final environmental impact statement on the proposal.


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