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Northern Wisconsin tribe wants Enbridge to remove pipeline from reservation

Danielle Kaeding

Wisconsin Public Radio

A northern Wisconsin tribe wants a Canadian energy firm to remove its pipeline from tribal reservation lands. The Bad River Band of Lake Superior Chippewa has decided not to renew easements on some tracts of land with Enbridge Energy for a segment of pipeline crossing the reservation.

Around a dozen miles of Enbridge’s Line 5 crosses tribal lands on its route from Superior to the Straits of Mackinac. The pipeline transports around 540,000 barrels per day of light crude oil and natural gas across the Midwest.

Bad River Tribal Spokesman Dylan Jennings said they want the line gone to keep waters and lands clean for tribal members and the local area.

"Our people subsisted on these resources for many generations and we plan to keep it that way," Jennings said.

Brad Shamla, vice president of Enbridge’s U.S. operations, said the tribe’s decision comes as a surprise. He said the company has had a good working relationship with the tribe and its natural resources staff as it addressed concerns and ongoing maintenance of the pipeline.

"Our hope is that we can continue to have a dialogue and a conversation," Shamla said. "We really want to have an opportunity to hear from the band, listen to their concerns and really work to a solution that is a win-win solution."

However, Jennings said its tribal council is not budging on a resolution it passed this week against the renewal of 15 tracts of land on the reservation.

"No form of compensation or negotiations will change our decision," Jennings said. "We stand pretty firm on this. It’s not about the money. It’s about the environment and what we leave behind for our next generations."

Even so, Shamla said the tracts of land in question only represent about 20 percent of the pipeline segment running through tribal lands.

"So the tracts in question don’t represent our entire relationship with the band," Shamla said.

Enbridge has other easement agreements with the tribe on Line 5 that won't expire for decades, according to the company. 

The Bad River tribe acquired the lands several years ago and began negotiating with Enbridge on renewal of easement agreements for Line 5 in 2013. Shamla said it’s too early to tell what the tribe’s decision means for the remaining easements on the pipeline segment crossing the reservation.

"This is pretty new information for us as well. It isn’t something we’ve had a conversation with the band on directly. Though, it is something that we’re very, very interested in having that discussion with the band to determine what’s prompting this now," Shamla said. "It’s very important for us to maintain good relationships with all landowners, tenants and neighbors along the pipeline."

Jennings noted the age of Line 5 as a concern for tribal members and referred to other pipeline spills, including the 2010 Kalamazoo River spill in Michigan. The spill caused $1.2 billion in damage and spilled 843,000 gallons of oil from Enbridge’s Line 6B, according to the U.S. EPA. Shamla countered that safety is crucial to the company’s operations and the pipeline has received ongoing maintenance on tribal lands and elsewhere without a single spill.

In an ideal world, Jennings said the tribe would like to see the pipeline decommissioned on the reservation as soon as possible.

"We understand that things aren’t as simple as that, and we don’t expect them to concede or back down easily. We don’t know what will happen," Jennings said. "We can’t speak for Enbridge, but we’re prepared for anything."

Jennings said the tribe is considering all of its options, including a legal challenge. Shamla said it’s too soon to speculate whether Enbridge would seek resolution in court. The company is reviewing the tribe’s decision before determining its next steps.

Wisconsin Public Radio, © Copyright 2017, Board of Regents of the University of Wisconsin System and Wisconsin Educational Communications Board. More WPR news is available on KUWS-FM 91.3 or wpr.org.

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