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DOJ sides with Native American tribe in lawsuit against major oil company: 'Lacks any legal right to remain'

The main disagreement in the case is about treaties surrounding the pipeline.

The main disagreement in the case is about treaties surrounding the pipeline.

Photo Credit: Getty Images

Canadian oil company Enbridge owns a pipeline that runs across Wisconsin and Michigan. After years of legal disputes about it in Wisconsin's state courts, the Department of Justice has weighed in, voicing clear support of the Native American tribe standing in opposition to Enbridge, The New York Times reported.

What happened?

Line 5 is an oil pipeline that crosses 645 miles of Wisconsin and Michigan, including reservations, the Times revealed. It belongs to Enbridge, famous for its questionable use of police and sheriff services against pipeline protesters in Minnesota. 

Line 5 was built in 1953, according to Clean Water Action, and is wearing out, increasing the risk of highly polluting spills in an area already struggling with pollution.

The Bad River Band, an Ojibwe group whose land Line 5 crosses, wants the line shut down immediately, the Times reported.

Enbridge wants to make repairs and keep the pipeline running — potentially rerouting around the reservation, although it doesn't have permits for construction.

The 7th Circuit Court of Appeals in Wisconsin asked the Department of Justice for an amicus brief on the situation, according to the Times. The brief, filed April 10, says Enbridge "lacks any legal right to remain" on the Native American tribe's reservation.

Why does this case matter?

The main disagreement in the case is about treaties surrounding the pipeline. Enbridge claims that a U.S.-Canada treaty from the 1970s gives it a license to operate forever unless one of the two governments says otherwise, the Times reported.

But according to the Bad River Band, the older treaties between the tribe and the U.S. — predating the pipeline and the U.S.-Canada treaty by decades — take precedence, and Enbridge has been trespassing on tribal land all along.

"We're talking about the very essence of what tribal sovereignty is," David Gover, an attorney with the Native American Rights Fund, told the Times.

What's being done about the Line 5 situation?

The brief filed by the Justice Department sides with the Bad River Band and even says that a previous order for Enbridge to pay $5 million in restitution isn't enough to make up for the trespass or to deter companies from doing the same in the future, the Times reported

However, it doesn't call for the pipeline to shut down or address the treaty issue, so it doesn't go as far as Native groups were hoping.

"The courts passed the mic to the U.S., and the U.S. handed the mic right back to the courts," attorney Debbie Chizewer told the Times. Chizewer is with Earthjustice and represents the Bay Mills Indian Community in a parallel case in Michigan.

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