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Concerns Over Oil And Gas Pipeline In Northern Wisconsin

A glimpse of the Bad River in Ashland County. The existing Enbridge pipeline crosses the river downstream within the Bad River Band of Lake Superior Chippewa reservation. Enbridge proposes routing a replacement line that would run outside the reservation, crossing more than 150 wetlands and streams as well as the Bad River itself.
Susan Bence
A glimpse of the Bad River in Ashland County.

Concerns are flaring over a pipeline that carries crude oil and natural gas from western Canada. Enbridge, a Canadian company, owns the 645-mile line constructed nearly 70 years ago. The line starts in Superior, WI and ends at the southernmost point of Lake Huron.

The State of Michigan is worried about a potential leak in the section that crosses under the Straits of Mackinac. In Wisconsin, the pipeline cuts across Ashland County. People there are concerned about the potential risks posed to their water-rich region.

Jamie Dunn shared his concerns on a stroll just south of the city of Mellen. He walked along a path through a lush carpet of ferns, under a canopy of old growth trees. Dunn spent a lot of time in this region throughout his 30-year career as a hydrologist with the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources.

“We’re in the upper reaches of the Bad River watershed. Many streams all feed into the Bad River, which then discharges into Lake Superior. [A] lot of sensitive environments, wetlands,” Dunn added, “Most of these are very, very high-class trout streams.”

The Enbridge Pipeline, called Line 5, runs north of the area, through the Bad River Band of Lake Superior Chippewa Reservation.

An Enbridge spokesperson told WUWM that Line 5 has consistently operated safely since 1953, including within the reservation. Still, in response to the tribe's request, Enbridge is working on re-routing Line 5 outside of the reservation.


Over time, storms have eroded and exposed sections of the existing line within the reservation. Enbridge is proposing a 42 mile route that would loop south, skirting the reservation. Hydrologist Jamie Dunn called the proposal untenable.

“I couldn’t come up with a worse route for the surface water and the groundwater resources through this area. If there is a release, it is going to be a major impact on the surface water resources, [it] could be a major impact on the Copper Falls aquifer, which is the drinking water for everybody in the basin,” Dunn added, “The risks just outweigh the need for this pipeline. I just don’t see a scenario where it should go in.”

Philomena Kebec stood nearby as Dunn spoke, watching her young son splash gleefully in the river.

The Bad River
Susan Bence
The Bad River

“I was just walking in the river and it’s teaming with life," Kebec said. "There’s all these little tiny baby fish and you can feel the current, it’s pushing us toward the lake."

Kebec is a lawyer, a mom and, as she expresses it, belongs to the Bad River. She worries about 42 miles of pipeline cutting through more than 150 wetlands and streams.

“There’s kind of two sets of risks and at least two sets of problems. There’s the problem of constructing and maintaining a thoroughfare for oil, that’s problematic in and of itself."

And Kebec believes a rupture is inevitable.

"I’ve worked with Indigenous people in the Amazon and all over this country. If you start to put roads and access points into these special areas, you have more opportunity for intrusion and less opportunity for Indigenous people to protect these spaces,” Kebec said.

The future of Line 5 is not yet clear. The State of Michigan is in the throes of court-ordered mediation with Enbridge over the section of Line 5 that runs beneath the Straits of Mackinac. In Wisconsin, the DNR is drafting what’s called an Environmental Impact Statement for Enbridge’s proposed relocation within the Bad River region. According to the DNR, a formal hearing and public comment period that must last at least 30 days will come next.

Enbridge maintains that Line 5 "is a vital link to propane and other energy supplies for the upper Midwest." Enbridge says without Line 5, it would take "2100 trucks, 90 leaving the terminal every hour…800 trains per day...to move what's carried in the pipeline."

Bad River Band of Lake Superior Chippewa natural resources director Naomi Tillison provided overview of existing pipeline issues to GLIFWC (Great Lakes Indian Fish & Wildlife Commission) January 28, 2020.

Susan is WUWM's environmental reporter.
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