“We’ve got a long winter ahead of us,” a woman said as she spread a sawdust path, “so we’re just trying to prepare as best we can.”
The modest camp in the woods of northern Michigan is the symbolic base for protesters battling an aging oil pipeline that crosses one of the most environmentally critical locations in the country. A short drive up the highway, some 23 million gallons of oil flow daily through the Straits of Mackinac, an iconic waterway that connects Lake Michigan and Lake Huron and the state’s two peninsulas.
Line 5, operated by the Canadian multinational company Enbridge, has been enveloped in controversy for months. And even as calls for a shutdown increased, Michigan’s outgoing governor pressed for a new agreement to ensure it continues.
The “water protectors,” as those at the camp call themselves, vow to stay until the pipeline is decommissioned.
“I’m doing it for my people,” said Patrick Deverney, a 39-year-old member of the Grand Traverse Band of Ottawa and Chippewa Indians. “Without that water, we’re going to die.”
Enbridge’s Straits of Mackinac operation represents only a tiny fraction of an extensive system that originates at the tar sands of northern Alberta. The network, built in 1953, starts in Superior, Wis., and transports a daily average of 540,000 barrels of light crude and natural gas liquids east and south across Michigan before arriving at a distribution center in the border city of Sarnia, Ontario.
The company provided 102 jobs in Michigan last year, according to Enbridge data, and nearly $62 million in property and other taxes. Line 5’s twin metal pipes also deliver much of the state’s propane, heating thousands of homes in the Upper Peninsula.
But the route primarily serves as a shortcut across the Great Lakes to help meet Canadian demand. “The value of this pipeline almost exclusively goes to Enbridge Energy,” said Mike Shriberg, who heads the National Wildlife Federation’s regional center for the Great Lakes and sits on the Michigan Pipeline Safety Advisory Board. “Yet it’s risking arguably our most valuable asset.”
The stakes could hardly be higher. The larger Great Lakes system supplies drinking water for some 40 million people, sustains thousands of plant and animal species and supports vital industries such as fishing, logging and tourism. (The Straits of Mackinac, where an expanse of dazzling blue freshwater ripples below one of the world’s great suspension bridges, offers one of Michigan’s most famous images.)
And while most state residents feel a special attachment to the Great Lakes, the connection runs particularly deep for Native Americans. Several islands near the Straits are home to ancestral burial grounds, and under the 1836 treaty that led to Michigan’s statehood, the Anishinaabek people ceded some 14 million acres to the U.S. government but retained hunting and fishing rights. The pipeline, indigenous groups argue, threatens not just the environment but a culture.
“What they’re doing is taking away our connection with Mother Earth,” said Cody Bigjohn, an Odawa Indian who wears camouflage hunting pants and seems to exude the outdoors. “We use all the things we gather. … So if that gets all poisoned, then we got to go back to the government and ask them, ‘Can we have some food.’”
A spill at the Straits, perhaps the only place in the world where an oil pipeline travels through several miles of freshwater, could be unprecedented. Computer models predict a major rupture would release tens of thousands of barrels of oil, potentially contaminating more than 1,000 square miles of water and hundreds of miles of shoreline. The area has strong and frequently shifting currents. In winter, the lakes often freeze, which would dramatically complicate any cleanup effort.
“Every spill is devastating,” said Guy Meadows, director of the Great Lakes Research Center at Michigan Technological University, who led a state-commissioned risk analysis released in September. “There is no single worst-case scenario.”
Michigan remains scarred from one Enbridge disaster. In 2010, a different pipeline burst in the southern part of the state, ultimately releasing more than 1 million gallons of tar-like diluted bitumen into the Kalamazoo River watershed — one of the largest inland oil spills in U.S. history. More than two dozen spills have also occurred since Line 5 opened.
More recent revelations about its condition through the Straits, from the disintegration of protective coating to insufficient anchor supports, have inflamed the years-long debate. In April, a tugboat’s anchor collided with the pipe, denting it in three places. State officials have repeatedly faulted Enbridge for failing to communicate about problems.
“I am no longer satisfied with the operational activities and public information tactics that have become status quo for Enbridge,” Gov. Rick Snyder (R) said in a November 2017 statement after the company, which months earlier had denied a report that cited coating gaps, disclosed the discovery of dozens more.
Enbridge maintains that the latest structural issues have been repaired and that tests have proven the pipeline safe. According to spokesman Ryan Duffy, the company is committed to working with the state and allaying public concern. “We know the line is in very good condition,” he said.
Despite his previous concerns, Snyder in October approved a project to replace the current submerged pipes with a new single pipe that will run through a tunnel 100 feet below the lake bed. Construction is officially estimated to take up to 10 years and cost Enbridge up to $500 million.
Though supporters say the tunnel will eliminate any threat of a water spill, opponents argue the plan still leaves the Great Lakes vulnerable for a decade or more and amounts to a sweetheart deal for a bad corporate partner.
“This is just the wrong place,” Shriberg said of the project. “And it’s the wrong company based on their track record.”
Enbridge notes that the tunnel has been extensively studied for environmental safety. “It’s building for the future; that’s how we see it,” Duffy said.
Camp Anishinaabek took shape this summer. The idea was born two years earlier at the Standing Rock protests in North Dakota — over the Dakota Access pipeline project — when a group from Michigan began discussing the threat from Line 5. “We all envisioned this together,” said Bigjohn, who runs a small graphic-design business and usually resides in the nearby village of Alanson.
The small camp, set up on a 10-acre property adjacent to a horse farm, is easy to miss. A few colorful flags mark its entrance off an unplowed dirt road. Yet its clout has grown as the water protectors have built a support network and drawn protesters from across the country.
“What’s the point of living if these lakes are gone?” said Sarah Shomin, 22. She grew up on a reservation and most recently worked at a small hotel. “I’ve known ’em my whole life.”
Since the weather turned, the camp’s numbers have hovered around a half dozen — men and women in their 20s to 60s who have no plumbing but manage to post updates regularly on social media. They’re kept company by a pit-bull puppy, Karma, brought in to help fend off coyotes, raccoons and other wild animals.
A large Army tent serves as a communal space. A separate tent for the kitchen has a small gas cooker and dishwashing tub. Water comes from a well down the road or from melting snow. Supporters often help with food donations, including an entire deer and 200 pounds of potatoes. Grimy metal stoves provide heat.
The water protectors are prepared to stay for a while. In the recent lame-duck session, Snyder successfully pushed legislation intended to fast-track the tunnel project, though analysts say Gov.-elect Gretchen Whitmer (D) and Attorney General-elect Dana Nessel (D) will have leeway to stall it or move to shut down Line 5. Both have promised to do the latter.
Such an effort could drag on for years. Oil networks are complicated, and Enbridge has powerful connections. “They have all the money,” Shomin said. “If I can’t stop it, I’m going to go down fighting.”
For Nancy Gallardo, a tireless 62-year-old who grew up swimming in Lake Michigan, the camp is about fulfilling a promise. At Standing Rock, she felt she had failed to help safeguard the Missouri River. She joined the Line 5 campaign last year and is set on a different outcome.
Gallardo recalled a flotilla protest at the Straits by pipeline opponents. She arrived the night before, walking in the glow of the Mackinac Bridge to kneel and cup the water in her hands.
“Letting the water know that I’m here,” she explained, “and I will do everything I can to protect it.”
Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly reported the length of Enbridge’s 645-mile pipeline network from Superior, Wis., to Sarnia, Ontario, as the length of a more extensive system originating in northern Alberta.