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Army Corps of Engineers gets earful at hearing

Mary Annette Pember

On June 4, hundreds of people showed up at a public hearing in Ashland, Wisconsin, to express opposition and support for Enbridge’s proposed reroute of its Line 5 pipeline around the Bad River Reservation.

The hearings, held by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, were the latest in the ongoing dispute over the pipeline’s future.

In 2019, the Bad River Band of the Lake Superior Chippewa filed a lawsuit in federal court calling on Enbridge to decommission and remove the approximately 12-mile section of pipeline running through the tribe’s lands. The line was first constructed through Bad River in 1953 but in 2013, the tribe declined to renew easements permitting the company to continue occupying its lands.

In 2022, the U.S. District Judge William Conley in the Western District of Wisconsin ruled that Enbridge was illegally trespassing on Bad River lands. In 2023, the same court ruled that Line 5 posed a public nuisance and ordered the company to shut down the pipeline crossing the tribe’s lands within three years and ordered Enbridge to pay the tribe $5.1 million in unlawfully accrued profits.

Line 5 is a 645-mile-long oil and gas pipeline originating in Western Canada and crossing Wisconsin and Michigan terminating in Ontario, Canada.

Enbridge is proposing rerouting a 41-mile segment of the pipeline that would go around Bad River lands. Opponents complain that the reroute is still within the tribe’s watershed and crosses approximately 180 waterways. Supporters say the project will create over 700 union construction jobs in Wisconsin.

Map showing existing Enbridge Line pipeline through Bad River lands; dotted line depicts proposed reroute. Graphic courtesy U.S. Army Corps of Engineers public affairs office, St. Paul District

On May 20, the Army Corps of Engineers released a draft of its environmental assessment for the project and scheduled an in-person public comment session on June 4 announcing it would accept written comments until July 5. According to the Clean Water Act, the Corps is tasked with regulating the discharge of dredged or fill material into U.S. waters and issuing environmental assessments for construction projects impacting waterways. The Corps is also responsible for reviewing the project’s impact on historic properties in consultation with Tribal Historic Preservation Officers and the state Historic Preservation Office, according to the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources.

Pipeline opponents and leadership of the Bad River tribe complained that the public hearing was premature and failed to allow enough time for the tribe or public to review the document and respond. The Corps draft document is over 130 pages.

In a May 10 letter to the Corps, Bad River chairman Robert Blanchard urged the agency to allow the tribe enough time to analyze the project’s impacts and include the tribe’s analysis in the final assessment. “Section 401 (of the Clean Water Act),” Blanchard wrote, “affords downstream jurisdictions the opportunity to weigh in on proposed projects if they may affect the water quality of their state.”

The Corp’s draft analysis includes evaluation of impacts of discharge of dredged and fill materials on the environment as well as on public interests such as cultural values. The Corps found that impacts of the reroute project would have “minor long-term effect on wetlands from a public interest perspective.” And it states, “The Corps has preliminarily determined the effects to water resulting from proposed discharges or dredged or fill material or both would be minor and temporary.”

Opponents claim the Corps improperly characterizes negative impacts of the construction project.

The Corps statement misidentifies wetlands and omits information, Blanchard said. “This is why I am encouraging people to insist the Army Corps of Engineers take a harder look at the impacts of this project through the environmental impact statement,” he said in an interview with ICT.

“The Bad River watershed extends beyond the borders of our reservation; an oil spill will adversely affect our treaty protected right to fish, hunt and gather from these lands and waterways.”

In an email to ICT, Shannon Armitage Bauer, chief of public affairs for the Army Corps of Engineers St. Paul district, said the agency has extended the public comment period for another 30 days.

The approval process for the reroute project includes several permits, approvals and reviews by state and federal agencies, according to the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources.

“I hope the Army Corps finds it in their hearts to do the right thing, “ Blanchard said. “This is where we live, where we all live and we need to treat Mother Earth a lot better than we have.”

“In the draft environmental assessment, the Army Corps of Engineer’s writes that the applicant’s (Enbridge) is ‘both reasonable and practicable and appears to convey an environmental advantage over the other action alternatives,’” Juli Kellner, communications specialist at Enbridge, wrote in an email to ICT.

“Archaeological and cultural resource surveys developed with participation of tribal members from Bad River, Red Cliff, Fond du Lac, Santee Sioux and Leech Lake were completed to identify resources to be avoided and protected,” she added.

Enbridge has additional opposition to Line 5 from tribes in Michigan. In April, Earthjustice and the Native American Rights Fund filed a challenge on behalf of the Bay Mills Indian Community, Grand Traverse Band of Ottawa and Chippewa Indians, the Little Traverse Bay Band of Odawa Indians, and Nottawaseppi Huron Band of the Potawatomi opposing Enbridge’s proposed tunnel project under the Straits of Mackinac.

Michigan tribes have joined several representatives in Michigan state government in opposing the tunnel and seeking legal action to shut down the pipeline, which they say endangers “one of the most ecologically sensitive areas in the world,” according to Oil and Water Don’t Mix, a Michigan-based advocacy organization. 

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