The Bad River Band of the Lake Superior Tribe of Chippewa Indians took a cue from the Standing Rock Sioux protest this winter and declined to allow an oil pipeline to run through their land.
The pipeline, known as Line 5, was installed in the 1950s thanks to an easement granted by the tribe to the oil company, allowing the pipe to run through tribal land. Unlike most privately owned land, tribal land is sovereign and not subject to eminent domain, so oil companies cannot force use of it for the public good; permission is required from the tribe, generally in the form of such an easement.
This easement expired in 2013, and the tribe voted in the first week of 2017 not to renew it, terminating the oil company’s permission to use the land and effectively forcing them to reroute the line.
The pipeline is owned by a Canadian company called Enbridge, which owns more than 11,000 miles of pipelines in the U.S. and Canada. Enbridge pipes have been responsible for several oil spills, including an enormous one in Kalamazoo, Michigan, in 2010 that sparked an arts boycott and a very expensive settlement. Just last week, Enbridge closed its Ozark pipeline because of another spill in Missouri.
Oil spills and leaks have occurred with increasing frequency in the last several years, in line with a rise in domestic crude oil production. An analysis by the Associated Press found that nearly two-thirds of those leaks were linked to corrosion or other problems associated with older pipelines—and Line 5 is 64 years old.
The Bad River band says they are concerned about pollution of the Bad River watershed, Lake Superior, and Lake Michigan. Lake Superior contains 10 percent of the earth’s fresh surface water, enough to flood North and South America about a foot deep. The Bad River watershed drains 1,000 square miles and is an important ecological resource; several varieties of fish spawn there, and wild rice, a staple food group for Chippewa Indians, grows in the wetlands. Damage to either of these resources could fairly be called catastrophic.
Dylan Jennings, a Bad River tribal council member, said, “We are not convinced that a 64-year-old pipeline is structurally sound enough to last even another few years and we are not prepared to leave that behind for another generation.…No amount of compensation or negotiation will change our minds.”
This year, Native American land rights have received international attention thanks to the Standing Rock Sioux tribe’s protest of the Dakota Access pipeline near tribal lands, which NPQ followed closely and which ultimately found some success. Over in Michigan, the Grand Traverse Band of Ottawa and Chippewa Indians has cited the Standing Rock protest as a source of inspiration and information for their own fight against another section of Enridge’s Line 5.
Now, the Wisconsin Bad River band has taken up the banner, protecting tribal lands against potential ecological disaster by blocking the oil companies out. If they, too, are successful, it may be the start of a turning tide.—Erin Rubin