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Judge Gives Enbridge 3 Years to Close Oil Pipeline on Tribal Land in Wisconsin

Enbridge must also pay a tribe more than $5.15 million for trespassing.

An above-ground section of Enbridge's Line 5 at the Mackinaw City, Mich., pump station sits on Oct. 7, 2016.
An above-ground section of Enbridge's Line 5 at the Mackinaw City, Mich., pump station sits on Oct. 7, 2016.
AP Photo/John Flesher, File

MADISON, Wis. (AP) β€” A federal judge has given Enbridge three years to shut down parts of an oil pipeline that crosses reservation land and ordered the energy company to pay a Native American tribe more than $5 million for trespassing.

Friday's order from U.S. District Judge William Conley came after members of the Bad River Band of Lake Superior Chippewa told him during a hearing in Madison that the Enbrige Line 5 pipeline is at immediate risk of being exposed by erosion and rupturing on their land.

The tribe argued that an emergency exists because large sections of nearby riverbank have washed away this year, leaving less than 15 feet (4.6 meters) of land between Line 5 and the Bad River as it meanders on the reservation.

Experts and environmental advocates have warned in court that exposed pipelines would be weakened and could rupture at any time, causing massive oil spills.

The judge's order said a rupture on tribal land "would unquestionably be a public nuisance" but denied that the threat is imminent, and said a shutdown would likely "spark at least temporary shortages and increased prices for refined gas, propane and butane in the Upper Midwest and Eastern Canada, creating hardships, specially for the poor and other economically challenged households."

"Nevertheless, given the environmental risks, the court will order Enbridge to adopt a more conservative shutdown and purge plan," Conley wrote.

His order gives Enbridge three years to "cease operation of Line 5 on any parcel within the Band's tribal territory on which defendants lack a valid right of way and to arrange reasonable remediation at those sites."

Conley also ordered Enbridge to pay more than $5.15 million for trespassing, and to keep paying the tribe a portion of its profits for as long as the pipeline continues operating on tribal land.

Enbridge said Saturday that it plans to appeal and "remains open to an amicable resolution with the Bad River Band." The statement says it disagrees that Enbridge is trespassing and with the judge's order that Line 5 must stop operating on reservation land within three years.

Enbridge said the long-term solution to the dispute will be a 41-mile (66-kilometer) reroute of the pipeline, but "the project hinges on timely government permit approvals to allow construction to be completed within the next three years."

Line 5 transports up to 23 million gallons (about 87 million liters) of oil and liquid natural gas each day, stretching 645 miles (1,038 kilometers) from the city of Superior, Wisconsin through northern Wisconsin and Michigan to Sarnia, Ontario.

The Bad River tribe sued Enbridge in 2019 to force the company to remove the roughly 12-mile (19-kilometer) section crossing its reservation, saying the 70-year-old pipeline is dangerous and that land agreements allowing Enbridge to operate on the reservation expired in 2013.

Conley sided with the tribe in September, saying that Enbridge was trespassing and must compensate the tribe for illegally using its land.

In November, Conley told Enbridge and tribal leaders to create an emergency shutoff plan given the significant risk of "catastrophic" damage to the reservation and its water supply.

The tribe's office in Odanah, Wisconsin, was closed Saturday and a telephone message seeking comment on the order was not immediately returned.

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