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Tribes call for federal government to shut down oil pipeline in Michigan

Michigan Department of Attorney General

Leaders in Michigan’s Native American community called this week for the federal government to back Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s decision to shut down an oil pipeline under the Straits of Mackinac.

Enbridge said the state government has no authority to shut down its pipeline, and only a court order or the federal government can compel it to stop the flow of oil.

So Native American tribes, who agree with Whitmer’s assessment that the pipeline represents an “unacceptable risk of a catastrophic oil spill,” have asked the federal government to step in.

Whitney Gravelle, the president of the Bay Mills Indian Community’s executive council, said land that should be protected by a treaty between tribes and the federal government would be devastated by a spill from the pipeline.

“Enbridge should not continue to profit while violating Michigan law,” Gravelle said. “Not only is the pipeline dangerous, it’s also an obsolete piece of fossil fuel infrastructure that jeopardizes our natural resources and Bay Mills Indian Community’s tribal sovereignty and treaty rights.”

Enbridge has said the almost 70-year-old section of Line 5 that runs under the Straits is due for replacement, but company spokesperson Ryan Duffy said that section has never leaked.

That’s not good enough, said Gravelle: other sections of the line have leaked oil.

“Enbridge can continue to point to the Straits of Mackinac and say, ‘Hey, look, thankfully there’s never been a spill,’ but Line 5 is already a risk,” she said. “It has remained a risk, and it will continue to be a risk as long as we allow it to run throughout the state of Michigan.”

Duffy acknowledged leaks from other parts of its pipelines, but he said the company fully compensates people who are affected.

“We’ve pledged to cover all costs,” he said. “We would pay for everything.”

But David Gover, a staff attorney at the Native American Rights Fund, said money can’t cover the spiritual costs of environmental destruction in the Great Lakes.

“This is the birthplace to the Anishinaabe people. This is -- this is their Garden of Eden,” he said. “This is where the world came to be. When you talk about the birthplace, well there’s no amount of money that can replace the harm caused by something like an oil spill that would devastate the Straits of Mackinac.”

Gravelle said tribes in Northern Michigan would hold demonstrations this week to remind the federal government of its obligation to preserve their ability to hunt, fish and gather on territory they ceded through treaties.

"There's a real danger of those rights becoming empty words," said Gravelle. "You can't fish if the fish are dead."

Litigation around Line 5 is winding its way through the court system. The Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration -- the federal regulator that oversees the line’s operation -- said it won’t comment on the dispute while it’s still in court.

Brett joined WCMU in February, 2021, as a general assignment reporter. He was previously the health reporter at WXXI Public Broadcasting in Rochester, N.Y., and has filed stories for National Public Radio, IEEE Spectrum, The Village Voice and other outlets.
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