Indigenous people fish in northern Michigan. Photo Courtesy Library of Congress
Indigenous people fish in northern Michigan.

It’s not a matter of if Line 5 will spill but when, worry Michiganders who live up north near the unstable underwater pipeline. And building a tunnel around it? That’s a false solution, they say. 

MACKINAC, Mich.—Every day, Indigenous people in northern Michigan live and work in a constant state of stress, with their economic and cultural prosperity hinging on the stability of a deteriorating and volatile oil pipeline.  

“This is going to spill,” says Aaron Payment, an Indigenous person and resident of the area. “It’s not a matter of if; it’s a matter of when.”

Payment, chairperson for the Sault Tribe of Chippewa Indians, says the Indigenous tribes who live along and near the Mackinac Straits, where the Canadian-owned Line 5 oil pipeline runs underwater, are a major spill away from disaster. 

Many Indigenous people are full-time, commercial fishers, with rights to the area’s wildlife, promised to them in the 1836 treaty. The pipeline, owned by Enbridge, threatens their livelihoods, culture, and land, Payment says.

Of particular concern to the Sault Tribe of Chippewa Indians is the ruin an oil spill would mean for lake whitefish. Whitefish have historically been a dietary staple for Chippewa people, many of whom remain full-time fishers in the area. In addition to their commercial viability for both Indigenous and non-Indigenous people, whitefish are also a sacred part of Chippewa heritage, incorporated in the tribe’s belief system.

“The whitefish is a part of our culture and our creation story,” Payment said. “And right now because of invasive species and climate change, whitefish herd population is at a very delicate stage. A spill at the straits would decimate the whitefish herd and probably eradicate it, such that a centuries-old practice will be eliminated.”

Environmental activists say the threat extends to salmon, birds, and local plants, including endangered species. The fallout would extend beyond the Straits of Mackinac and impact 400 miles of shoreline, weighing down Michigan’s outdoors tourism and commercial fishing.

Enbridge, the Canadian oil barren, has admitted to decay along the pipeline, but despite Michigan orders, refused to shut it down. Nearly 23 million gallons of oil shoot through the pipeline every day.

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Millions of Gallons Leaked So Far 

Line 5 worries are not new. Nor are they unfounded. 

Line 5 is in violation of safety measures designed to protect the Straits of Mackinac, which researchers say would be the worst place in the Great Lakes region for a spill. Several close calls and smaller spills have called into question the integrity of the structure.

The company’s history is one reason residents worry.

Enbridge’s Line 6 ruptured and poured a million gallons of oil into the Kalamazoo River near Marshall in 2010.

After, the state received a $75 million settlement, but activists say the area, which remained closed for two years after, still hasn’t fully recovered. 

“That could happen anywhere along Line 5, at any time,” said Sean Hammond, a policy director with the Michigan Environmental Council.

Line 5 itself has spilled more than 1.1 million gallons of oil in the last 50 years, the National Wildlife Federation reported, in a series of more than 30 incidents. Enbridge has chalked some up to “normal wear and tear,” but activists fear that it’s only a matter of time until the dilapidated pipeline ruptures catastrophically, right in the straits.

Just in June, a 15,000-pound anchor, severed from its restraints, broke free from an Enbridge vessel and missed the pipeline narrowly. A 2017 report to former Gov. Rick Snyder’s administration found that an anchor was the No. 1 threat to the pipeline.

In a worst-case scenario, not only would a rupture ravage the local environment, but it would shellshock the economy around the Straits of Mackinac and up the coasts.

Here, Payment says, people rely on a hibernation economy. They need the summer economic boom of tourism to survive the winter. 

If a spill occurred, this feast-or-famine lifestyle could send thousands of Michiganders into crisis mode and onto unemployment rolls, with the burden on state taxpayers. 

It’s more than an up-north issue, he says; it’s something that matters to all of Michigan.

“It is in your backyard because every Michigan taxpayer would be called to pay the expense of this spill,” Payment said.

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A Ticking Time Bomb 

A lot has happened around Line 5 in the past five years alone—multiple anchors that barely averted disaster, the deterioration of protective coating, studies uncovering numerous flaws with the 67-year-old pipeline—all of which led Gov. Gretchen Whitmer to order Enbridge to cease sending oil through the Straits of Mackinac. 

Enbridge has refused. 

The Canadian energy giant is requesting court intervention, while in the meantime, it continues to pump oil through an antiquated structure teeming with structural risks. Environmental activists and the Michigan government say it is a clear violation of the law, and those who kept close tabs on the situation believe Enbridge is trying to buy time.

“They’re attempting to delay the legal process that’s moving forward,” said Sean McBrearty, the legislative and policy director for Clean Water Action Michigan.

Enbridge has a powerful ally in its fight against the Michigan government. Canada has backed Enbridge today, and a cabinet member of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau outwardly expressed support for the pipeline, which runs from the Canadian heartland to Sarnia, a Canadian port city home to refineries. More than 90% of the oil stays in Canada, found environmental activist group For Love of Water, though the route cuts primarily through environmentally rich parts of the United States.

Wednesday, September 1, protestors gathered at the Detroit riverfront, looking across the border to Canada to ask the government to shut down the pipeline.

“The tunnel is a false solution,” McBrearty said. “We’re talking about probably a seven- to 10-year timeline at least before the tunnel would be built. And meanwhile, that existing pipeline remains a ticking timeline.”

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