‘We can’t drink oil’: how a 70-year-old pipeline imperils the Great Lakes

It’s little known to the throngs of tourists who gawp at the wonder of the Great Lakes but at the meeting point of Lake Huron and Lake Michigan, a combined system that forms the largest lake in the world, there is a 70-year-old pipeline, battered and dented by dropped boat anchors.

The pipeline pushes a million gallons of oil each hour through the heart of this vast ecosystem.

The operators of this pipeline, which is called Line 5, now wants to embark upon an enormous tunneling project to burrow the exposed section that lies on the lakebed underneath the Great Lakes and prolong its life for another century, starting a labyrinthine battle that has enmeshed the governments of the US and Canada, the state of Michigan and various industry and fishing interests.

At the centre of this maelstrom are the native Great Lakes tribes that cherish the Straits of Mackinac, the four mile-wide stretch of water the ageing pipeline bisects, in creation stories as the birthplace of North America itself. They claim Line 5, which cuts through swathes of native land in its 645-mile route, is a “ticking time bomb” that imperils the Great Lakes, which contain a fifth of Earth’s entire surface fresh water, and risks severing deep, existential bonds of cultural connections that stretch back millennia.

“An oil spill would be catastrophic for all of North America, this place would become a toxic wasteland that would be contaminated for years,” said Whitney Gravelle, an Ojibwe person who is president of the Bay Mills Indian Community. “People often can’t even believe there is a pipeline going through the Great Lakes. It seems crazy that we just have this heart attack waiting to happen.

“I am terrified every day about an oil spill and what that would mean for our ability to fish, to gather, to eat together. It would destroy our relationship with the land and the water. If that is destroyed, how can we continue to be indigenous? It’s emotional to even think about it.”

Last month, Gravelle spearheaded a delegation representing a dozen tribes whose ancestral lands surround the Great Lakes in a trip to Geneva, Switzerland, to address diplomats at the UN human rights council. The tribes’ official complaint alleges that Line 5 is a “current and foreseeable threat to a broad range of human rights” and that Canada has “repeatedly violated” its international obligations by intervening on behalf of the pipeline’s operator, Enbridge, a Canadian company.

In 2021, the Canadian government invoked an obscure 1977 treaty with the US to ensure the continuance of the pipeline after Michigan ordered that it be shut down due to the risk it poses to the Great Lakes – an order that Enbridge has so far defied amid a crossfire of different lawsuits that may take years to resolve.

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“We were getting some progress and then Canada came in and just shackled everything,” said Gravelle, who added that the pipeline, along with examples found at Line 3, another Enbridge project, Standing Rock, in North Dakota, and Willow, in Alaska, show that “there is just this continuous pattern that Indigenous communities and communities of color bear all the risk when we have these sort of extractive projects”.

In July, a UN special rapporteur on the rights of Indigenous peoples scolded Canada for its support of Line 5, citing a lack of consultation with tribes and for undermining its own commitments to tackle the climate crisis. This came just a month after a federal judge gave Enbridge three years to shut down another section of Line 5 that crosses the Bad River reservation that abuts Lake Superior, in Wisconsin, after the tribe complained that an eroding riverbank is bringing Line 5 perilously close to the Bad River itself.

“The whole line needs to be decommissioned and shut off,” said Frank Ettawageshik, an Odawa man who is the executive director of the United Tribes of Michigan. “When we say water is life, well, it’s because water is life to us. We need to have access to it. It’s an irreplaceable resource.”

The fight to shut down Line 5 is a particularly personal one for Gravelle. In 1971 her grandfather Albert LeBlanc, a Chippewa Indian, was arrested for casting gill nets in Lake Superior without a license.

LeBlanc successfully argued, in Michigan’s supreme court, that tribes had the right to continue their hunting and gathering practices under an 1836 treaty struck with the expanding US in which the Ottawa and Chippewa nations ceded nearly 16m acres of land that was to form the basis of would become the state of Michigan a year later.

Maintaining the fishing of trout and whitefish, the weaving of cattail plants and other cultural practices are integral to the Anishinaabe, or ‘original people’ – a group of tribes that were the first to inhabit the Great Lakes region before French and then British military incursions instigated an era where tribes were broken up, pushed onto reservations, their children forced into boarding schools and adoptions by white families.

The Straits of Mackinac may now be a corridor for water-borne freight and sightseers, but to the Anishinaabe is it the cradle of north America itself, a place where a brave muskrat dived to the lakebed for a fistful of earth that was then spread on the back of a great turtle to form the entire continent – Mackinac Island, the bucolic car-free island in the Straits, means “turtle island” in the Anishinaabe language.

“People may just see water here, but I see a living thing,” Gravelle said. “This is our home, we have nowhere else to go. An oil spill here would be a sort of final act of colonization. If that spirit of what the lakes is dies, our culture dies with it. And if our culture dies, so do we.”

The Great Lakes – Superior, Huron, Michigan, Erie and Ontario – are bodies of water so gargantuan the word “lake” seems insufficient. More resembling inland oceans, these sprawling expanses stretch out beyond horizons, collectively covering an area as large as the UK and providing drinking water for a third of all Canadians and one in 10 Americans.

The interconnected lakes have been assailed by invasive aquatic species, are riddled with plastic pollution and are heating up due to rising global temperatures, but remain vital ecological jewels in an era where the world’s fresh water supply is dangerously stressed. Lake Michigan has soaring sand dunes, Lake Superior is so deep it could swallow the Empire State Building and Lake Erie even has its own Loch Ness-style “sea monster”, called Bessie.

Huge and yet bounded on all sides, the lakes can whip water into surprisingly large waves. The wind pushes the water into eddies that crisscross each other, often more capriciously than in the ocean. More than 10,000 vessels have sunk on the lakes, often as a result of the tightly packed, fierce waves. “To me Lake Superior is the most beautiful body of water in the world,” said Jacques LeBlanc, a tribal fisher and another grandchild of Albert LeBlanc. “But there are storms and waves and smells. There is power, as well as beauty.”

The currents are particularly strong in the Straits of Mackinac, the passage that connects Lake Michigan and Lake Huron, a bit like a trachea separating two great lobes of the lungs. This turbulent environment makes it “the worst possible place for an oil spill”, according to David Schwab, an oceanographer who has conducted modeling that shows that, depending on the magnitude of a spill and weather conditions, oil would disperse quickly and cake more than 400 miles of the combined lakes’ shorelines, befouling fish habitat and driving away tourists.

A state-mandated risk analysis from 2018 calculated such an event could cause about $2bn in damages, with estimates that only 30% of an oil spill could be recovered. Such a spill would rival the BP Deepwater Horizon disaster, one of the worst environmental calamities in US history, the risk analysis found, although it noted that such “marine spills do not have the risk of contaminating drinking water supplies”, unlike a spill in the Great Lakes.

“It’s scary to think about a spill in this part of the lakes, it would be absolutely disastrous,” said Schwab. “The oil could spread for hundreds of miles as the currents are so strong there.”

It’s precisely in this spot, however, where Line 5 splits into two smaller, 20in steel pipelines that plunge down on to the lakebed, running parallel to the Bridge of Mackinac, a suspension crossing that joins Michigan’s upper and lower peninsulas, and under the Straits, dotted by islands and fringed by forests and wetlands.

Enbridge pumps around 23m gallons of oil and liquid natural gas products each day through the snaking route of Line 5, built in 1953 to use the Great Lakes region as a sort of shortcut to funnel heavy Canadian crude oil and gas from Superior in Wisconsin to processing in Sarnia, back in Canada. Enbridge says that the pipeline is in “excellent condition”, despite suggestions it is 20 years beyond its intended lifespan, and that it is inspected regularly, including via remote submersible vehicles sent on survey missions down to the 270ft depth of the pipeline as it crosses the Straits of Mackinac.

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“Line 5 was over engineered when it was built to help it stand the test of time,” said an Enbridge spokesman, who added that the pipe under the Straits is the thickest in the company’s network and operates under a tranche of safety protocols. “Line 5 is operating safely and has never had an incident in the Straits. Our proposed Great Lakes tunnel will further protect the waters of the Straits and Great Lakes.”

But over the decades erosion has caused the pipeline, which was buried under the lakebed, to become exposed, increasing the risk of boats accidentally clattering it with their anchors, which happened in 2018 and then again two years later, causing dents to part of the pipeline. Enbridge has been accused of violating conditions around the upkeep of the ageing pipeline, heightening fears of a catastrophic spill in the Great Lakes.

Even without a major spill, tribes and environmentalists have argued Line 5, which crosses hundreds of streams and rivers, has already caused harm. The pipeline has leaked more than 1m gallons of oil in a series of incidents over the past 50 years, federal data shows. Opposition to Line 5 was galvanized after another of Enbridge’s pipelines, called Line 6B, burst and gushed oil into a tributary of the Kalamazoo River in Michigan in 2010, causing 35 miles of the river to be closed for a clean-up that has taken years.

Such concerns prompted Gretchen Whitmer, Michigan’s governor, to cancel Enbridge’s easement through the state and order that Line 5 cease operation under the Straits of Mackinac within six months of November 2020, meaning that, critics say, Enbridge is now trespassing on two sites – at Bad River and under the Straits. Whitmer, a Democrat, has pointedly attacked Canada for “defending an oil company with an abysmal environmental track record”.

A spokesman for Global Affairs Canada said the government was negotiating with the US over Line 5. “Ensuring Canada’s energy security, and protecting Canadian jobs, economic prosperity and the environment of the Great Lakes region are top priorities,” he said.

Enbridge has fought the shutdown order through the courts, and is pressing on with plans to bore a concrete-lined tunnel into the rock under the Straits of Mackinac, within which it would place the pipeline. Allowing the tunnel project would improve the safety of the pipeline by removing it from the lakebed, Enbridge says, as well as provide it with a 99-year extension of the Line 5 project, should it secure the needed state and federal permits.

The coalition of tribes opposed to Line 5 hope to scupper it entirely by blocking the tunnel plan and have put forward experts who have warned the proposed structure could act as a sort of pipe bomb if the flammable contents of the pipeline leak into the open tunnel space and are ignited.

“This sort of project has never been attempted anywhere in the world,” said Brian O’Mara, a geological engineer with decades of tunneling experience. “A full-bore rupture of the pipeline could lead to a catastrophic fire and explosion that could destroy the tunnel lining and send oil and gas into the Straits. Enbridge seem to have their heads in the sand over this.”

Enbridge disputes this. “There is no credible scenario where an explosion could occur,” said a company spokesman, who added that the company wanted to work with tribes on the safe continuation of the pipeline. “Engagement with and respect for tribes and Indigenous peoples where we do business is very important to us,” he said.

The battle over this 70-year-old pipeline may drag on for several more years but the anxiety of the Great Lakes tribes won’t easily abate. At a recent protest event on the banks of Lake Michigan, called the Water is Life festival, banners reading “Protect the Great Lakes” and “We can’t drink oil” fluttered in the breeze of a waning summer as small knots of people gathered around a stage to listen to music and speeches.

“Anything manmade breaks, and that pipeline will break,” said Jannan Cornstalk, an Odawa woman who has organized this festival for the past five years. “And once it breaks, that’s it. Game over.”