Flooding has pushed Wisconsin's Bad River closer to Line 5 pipeline: court documents

·4 min read

WASHINGTON — Heavy flooding throughout the U.S. Midwest has pushed the edge of the Bad River in Wisconsin ever closer to Line 5, amplifying fears that the controversial pipeline could rupture on Indigenous lands and foul a vital watershed.

Court documents filed Monday show the river overtopped its banks twice last month for a total of nine days, washing away some 2.5 metres of terrain at the point where it comes closest to the line.

The Bad River Band of the Lake Superior Chippewa has been in court with Alberta energy giant Enbridge Inc. since 2019 in an effort to compel the pipeline's owner and operator to reroute Line 5 around its traditional territory.

"There has been a loss of bank separating Line 5 from the Bad River in certain areas," reads a joint status report submitted by both parties.

"At the time of trial, the pipeline was roughly 26.5 feet (eight metres) from the bank of the Bad River at the closest point. The shortest distance between the pipeline and the river is now roughly 17–18 feet (5.2-5.5 metres)."

Late last year, District Court Judge William Conley, who has already rejected calls to shut down the pipeline immediately, ordered both parties to submit contingency plans in the event the risk of a rupture grew too great.

Neither plan was triggered by the flooding, which began April 11 after an abrupt spring melt and persisted for days, worsened by heavy rains, until the floodwaters finally receded fully on April 23, the report says.

But environmental groups are less sanguine.

"Line 5 is designed to be underground and not in the rushing waters of a flooding river, where collisions with uprooted trees and other debris could easily cause a breach," said Timna Axel, a spokesperson for Earthjustice, an environmental law group.

Should the soil supporting the pipe become unstable, that could cause what Axel called a "guillotine rupture" — a vertical break that causes the line's contents to spill from both sides.

"Line 5 could easily be exposed and rupture unless Enbridge shuts down the pipeline and purges the nearly 1 million gallons (37,000 barrels) of oil that flow between valves."

Enbridge is "diligently monitoring" the pipeline, the weather and water levels 24 hours a day, and is "prepared with necessary plans, procedures, response personnel and equipment should they be required," the company said in a statement.

The line has been audited multiple times and the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration "has raised no safety concerns at this location," it added.

The full extent of the damage to the riverbank at the so-called "meander," where the river and the pipeline are closest, won't be fully confirmed until both the band and Enbridge can visit the site in person, it adds.

"Throughout the high-flow events, the parties have been and remain in close communication, sharing imagery, forecasts and interpretations of the data at least daily," the report says.

"The parties are co-ordinating a joint in-person field visit to occur as soon as safe and feasible in order to further assess the conditions at the meander and to inspect and, as necessary, re-affix monitoring equipment to the riverbank."

Environmental concerns about Line 5 have long been top of mind in Wisconsin, where the pipeline runs directly through the Bad River Reservation, more than 500 square kilometres of pristine wetlands, streams and wilderness.

Enbridge has already agreed to reroute it, with plans for a 66-kilometre detour of Line 5 around the reservation already more than two years along.

Last November, Conley made clear he had no interest in what he called an "automatic, permanent shutdown" of Line 5, citing "widespread economic consequences" and "significant public and foreign policy implications."

But a permanent shutdown is exactly what the United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues, a UN advisory body, recommended last week as it wrapped up its most recent session.

"The Permanent Forum calls on Canada to re-examine its support for the Enbridge Line 5 oil pipeline that jeopardizes the Great Lakes in the United States," the panel said.

"The pipeline represents a real and credible threat to the treaty-protected fishing rights of Indigenous Peoples in the United States and Canada."

Line 5 is also under legal siege in neighbouring Michigan, where the state wants the line shut down for fear of a disaster in the Straits of Mackinac, the ecologically delicate area where it crosses beneath the Great Lakes.

Business groups and chambers of commerce on both sides of the border, provincial governments and Ottawa have all rallied behind Enbridge in its effort to portray Line 5's survival as a mission-critical matter of continental energy security.

Allies have argued in court filings as well as public forums that Line 5 is a vital source of energy for several Midwestern states, and an essential link for Canadian refineries that fuel some of Canada's busiest airports.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published May 2, 2023.

James McCarten, The Canadian Press