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The Great Lakes region is blessed with an abundance of water. But water quality, affordability, and aging water infrastructure are vulnerabilities that have been ignored for far too long. In this series, members of the Great Lakes News Collaborative, Michigan Public, Bridge Michigan, Great Lakes Now, The Narwhal, and Circle of Blue, explore what it might take to preserve and protect this precious resource. This independent journalism is supported by the Charles Stewart Mott Foundation.

"Water is life" is the theme of Day 1 of protests to shut down Enbridge Line 5

Lester Graham
Michigan Radio

On Thursday, environmental groups and Native Americans plan to present Enbridge Energy with symbolic eviction notices. They want Enbridge to abide by Governor Gretchen Whitmer’s order to shut down Line 5 in the Straits of Mackinac.

In November 2020, Governor Whitmer revoked the easement for Enbridge Energy’s Line 5 twin pipelines through the Straits of Mackinac, and gave the company 180 days to shut down that section of the pipelines, which carry light crude oil and natural gas liquids.

That deadline was Wednesday at midnight, and Enbridge says it has no intention of shutting the line down.

On Tuesday, Governor Whitmer pledged to try and seize any profits the company makes from the pipeline after that deadline, claiming trespass on state property.

In the background, the question of whether Whitmer’s November revocation notice was legal is playing out in the courts.

Michigan Attorney General Dana Nessel sued in circuit court to enforce the order, and Enbridge counter-sued in federal court. The two sides are now in court-ordered mediation over whether the legal dispute over the easement will be heard in state or federal court.

Wednesday was the first day of Line 5 protests in Mackinaw City.

There's a two-lane road separating Enbridge Energy’s big Line 5 pumping station from a little park where a lot of tribal members from all over the upper Midwest gathered. There were also some non-indigenous activists from the Lower Peninsula of Michigan with them to keep public pressure on the Canadian pipeline company.

There was a lot of music, some ceremonies, and many people taking turns with the microphone, reminding each other how precious the Great Lakes – and particularly the Straits of Mackinac – are to the tribes.

Credit Lester Graham / Michigan Radio
Michigan Radio
Beatrice Menese' Kwe Jackson is a water protector.

Occasionally there were chants of “Shut down Line 5,” but mostly it was people expressing concern, worry, and frustration. If there were a pipeline rupture, it would ruin fishing in the area. It would ruin livelihoods for many tribal members. It would ruin the economy. And, of course, it would ruin the environment.

Beatrice Menese' Kwe Jackson said she's from a tribe where the grandmothers lead the community, and they are the protectors of water.

“I am Tlingit, Tsimshian.... My people are from the West Coast. They're the totem pole people,” she explained.

She lives in Cedarville, Michigan – just east of the Straits – now, but she performs water ceremonies all over North America. She said this gathering is partly a ceremony, and partly a reminder to non-tribal people of the importance of the Great Lakes.

“The whole slogan is 'water is life,' and to let every human being know that they have a vested interest in keeping our water pure and clean, and this is the biggest supply of fresh water in the whole world. Every one of us, no matter what your race is or your political persuasion or anything, that we have to make sure this water is good,” she said.

Credit Lester Graham / Michigan Radio
Michigan Radio
Ray St. Clair is with the White Earth Band of Ojibwe in Minnesota, but he lives in Michigan.

And rather than being confrontational, some attendees, said the message was one of understanding.

As a Native American person from where I'm at, it's time to start educating the non-native people," said Ray St. Clair. "The way that we can get there is peace and unity, so that's why I came up here,” he said.

An activist who didn’t belong to a tribe, Aaron Block has been thinking about polluted water for a while. He said he used to work on a touristy island in the Gulf of Mexico. He and a lot of others lost their jobs when the BP Deepwater Horizon oil rig gushed oil for almost three months. So, he moved back to Flint, only to find another case of water being contaminated. Block said he doesn’t trust Enbridge and its Line 5.

“The threat of them damaging our Straits, or our drinking supply or our water, our environment, it doesn't outweigh some fat cats making a few more bucks. That pipeline needs to stop flowing.”

Among the people taking a turn telling their stories of concern about water was Doug Craven. He thinks about water and wildlife every day. He’s the Natural Resources Director for the Little Traverse Bay Bands of Odawa Indians.

“That pipeline has been in there for 60 years-plus. Was rated for 50 years. There's potential for there to be a rupture and that would be catastrophic to our way of life, our use of the water, our commercial subsistence fishing, but also the greater non-tribal community as well. And we're very concerned about that,” he said.

Credit Lester Graham / Michigan Radio
Michigan Radio
Aaron Block lost his job in the tourism industry when a BP oil drilling rig spilled oil into the Gulf of Mexico for nearly three months. He moved back home to Flint only to be confronted with another water contamination problem.

One of the organizers of the two days of events is Nathan Wright. He’s with the Sault Ste. Marie Tribe of Chippewa Indians. He said his goal is not to fight Enbridge, but to reason with people who like the jobs and money that come with the pipeline.

He said a Native American elder recently found an Line 5 "infiltrator" in his group’s midst as they were about to perform a pipe ceremony. Usually, they would be kicked out.

Well, the elder didn't have that perspective there, like, well, they're there to participate in the ceremony. I'm going to let them. Maybe that guy, kind of something touched his heart and he said: 'These people aren't bad. All these things that they told us are not true. They are here peacefully and they are here to defend their lands and defend their water. Who are we to sit there and tell them they shouldn't do this?'”

Credit Lester Graham / Michigan Radio
Michigan Radio
Nathan Wright speaks to the crowd. He was one of the organizers of the two day event in Mackinaw City. He is a member of the Sault Ste. Marie Tribe of Chippewa Indians.

Wright said the gathering in Mackinaw City is more about bringing awareness to people who haven’t given the pipeline much thought. It’s also to let state leaders know there are people who care deeply about Line 5 and the damage it could do if it ruptured.

Enbridge Energy is one of Michigan Radio's corporate sponsors.

The Great Lakes News Collaborative includes Bridge Michigan; Circle of Blue; Great Lakes Now at Detroit Public Television; and Michigan Radio, Michigan’s NPR News Leader; who work together to bring audiences news and information about the impact of climate change, pollution, and aging infrastructure on the Great Lakes and drinking water. This independent journalism is supported by the Charles Stewart Mott Foundation.

Lester Graham reports for The Environment Report. He has reported on public policy, politics, and issues regarding race and gender inequity. He was previously with The Environment Report at Michigan Public from 1998-2010.
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