This story originally appeared on NatureChange.org, Joe VanderMeulen’s online publication that features conversations about conservation and climate in northern Michigan.
The beaches along Michigan’s west coast have all but disappeared under the rising water levels of Lake Michigan as well as the other Great Lakes. In fact, lake levels haven’t been this high in well over 100 years. They reached an all-time low in 2013 before a meteoric rise brought them to an all-time high in just 7 years.
If you love taking long walks along the lake shore, the high water and waves might just push you inland and on to private property. What can you do? Do you still have a right to walk the Great Lakes shorelines?
NatureChange.org talked with FLOW founder, president, and highly-respected environmental attorney, Jim Olson, about the changing coastline of Lake Michigan and the public’s right to walk the lake shore. As Olson describes, the land under the waters of Lake Michigan (and the water itself) along Michigan’s coast is held in public trust by the State. For a very long time, the public has had the right to walk along the beach below the Ordinary Natural High Water Mark — an obvious physical line of topography and vegetation created over many years by wave action. However, the rapid change in water levels and coastal erosion has overwhelmed the Ordinary Natural High Water Mark. So, where can we walk?
Olson says, “you have the right to still walk the beach, but you’re going to have to have your toe in the water or walk in the wet sand to be [legally] safe because we don’t know where that new natural ordinary high is. But we certainly know that if you’re within the wet sand, you’re certainly within the wave action and have a right under the public trust doctrine to access and walk along the beaches and shoreline of the Great Lakes.”
An educator for Michigan Sea Grant, Mark Breederland adds that the water levels in Lake Michigan are predicted to continue breaking records for many months, causing even more coastal erosion. In many places, high shore land bluffs and fallen trees can present real hazards to beach walkers. And if beach walkers need help to get out of a difficult situation, the first responders will be put at risk too.
“I think,” Breederland says, “our beach walking is going to have to be adjusted, for sure, for 2020.”
Linda Dewey, a journalist for the Glen Arbor Sun newspaper and Lake Michigan shoreline property owner, reminds everyone that walking the shoreline of Lake Michigan is a delightful, shared activity — with limits. When in front of private property, walkers are not permitted to stop, sit and settle in. That has always been true, but now there are new hazards. Where there are fallen trees, private docks or other structures blocking the shoreline, beach walkers are not allowed to walk inland on private property.
According to Dewey, if you encounter an obstruction and can’t go around it in the water, “You’re going to have to turn around.”
The following 4-minute video offers clear explanations and illustrations.
FLOW Urges Mackinac Straits Corridor Authority to Halt Action on Unauthorized ‘Line 5’ Oil Tunnel
Proposed project Fails to Comply with Great Lakes Submerged Lands Act and Public Trust Law
FLOW, an independent Great Lakes law and policy center based in Traverse City, Michigan, filed formal comments today with the Mackinac Straits Corridor Authority, calling on the body to halt any further implementation of Enbridge Energy’s proposed Line 5 oil pipeline tunnel until the authorizations and approvals required by public trust common law and statute have been applied for and obtained.
The Mackinac Straits Corridor Authority and Enbridge have not applied for, nor received, the required legal authorization from the Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes, and Energy to proceed with the oil pipeline tunnel. Canadian-based Enbridge hatched the tunnel scheme with the former Snyder administration to replace the 67-year-old decaying Line 5 pipelines in the open waters of the Straits of Mackinac, where Lake Michigan meets Lake Huron.
“The oil tunnel negotiators and parties’ attempt to bypass the Great Lakes Submerged Lands Act (GLSLA) and the public trust law constitute one of the most egregious attacks on citizens’ rights and sovereign public trust interests in the Great Lakes in the history of the State of Michigan,” saidFLOW Founder and President Jim Olson.
“The Mackinac Straits Corridor Authority must understand that it is subject to the public trust doctrine and law that applies to the Great Lakes and the soils under them,” said Olson, a water law and environmental attorney. “When Michigan joined the United States in 1837, it took title as sovereign for its citizens under the ‘equal footing’ doctrine to all of the navigable waters in its territory, including the Great Lakes, and ‘all of the soils under them’ below the natural ordinary high-water mark. These waters and the soils beneath them are held in, and protected by, a public trust.”
The public trust doctrine means that the state holds these waters and soils beneath them in trust for the public for the protection of preferred or dedicated public trust uses of navigation, fishing, boating, swimming, bathing, drinking water, and other recreation. There can be no disposition, transfer, conveyance, occupancy or use of any kind of these public trust waters and the soils beneath them, unless there is a statute or law that expressly authorizes that action.
The State and Enbridge must first obtain authorization under the GLSLA for the public-private partnership to establish a long-term agreement for the 99-year lease and occupancy agreement for a tunnel or pipeline in or through the soils and bottomlands of the Straits of Mackinac.
FLOW, as well as a coalition of state-wide public interest organization making up the Oil & Water Don’t Mix campaign, contends that boring an oil tunnel in and through the soils for an oil tunnel is not only subject to these public trust laws, but that crude oil pipelines in the or under the Great Lakes are not a solution given the risks and threats to the Great Lakes, its people, businesses, and communities. FLOW, OWDM, and other communities and organizations have also called for the shutdown of the 67-year old existing line 5 because of the immediate threat to the Straits and the risks posed by the pipeline’s more than 400 stream and river crossings in the Upper and Lower Peninsulas. Enbridge’s proposal to allow electrical lines and other infrastructure to occupy the proposed oil pipeline tunnel is a bad idea that poses an explosion risk. There is adequate capacity in the thousands of miles of the Enbridge crude oil pipeline system to meet its needs for Michigan and Canada without the perilous existing Line 5 or crude oil tunnel for another 67 years.
Revisiting the Foxconn Great Lakes Water Diversion in Wisconsin
By Jim Olson
Last summer I wrote about a Wisconsin administrative judge’s ruling that the diversion of 7 million gallons a minute — or 2 billion gallons of Great Lakes water per year — to the private corporation Foxconn to build a 22 million square-foot plant for 13,000 jobs should not qualify as a “public water supply”.
FLOW filed an amicus brief in the case, arguing in support of Wisconsin citizens and organizations that the Foxconn diversion was not exempt from the Great Lakes Compact, because it did not constitute a public water supply. Under the Compact and Wisconsin law, public water supply means “primarily residential” customers. To ensure a public service and purpose, the law and anti-diversion Compact are quite clear: If it’s not for many people who live in a straddling community but outside the basin, the water of the Great Lakes cannot be diverted. The law is also clear that it cannot be diverted for private purposes.
What happened in the Foxconn case was politics, plain and simple. Former Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker teamed up with the Taiwanese multinational electronics manufacturing company to commit $3 billion and 2 billion gallons of Great Lakes water for Foxconn’s promise of a 22 million square-foot facility and 13,000 jobs. Every business has to plan and decide for itself whether to build, finance, and operate an expansion. But 2018 was an election year, and Walker dangled everything he could to stir excitement for Wisconsin’s citizens. He rode the promises of Foxconn for tax base and jobs. Walker, a Republican, lost to now Governor Tony Evers, a Democrat. Foxconn didn’t uphold its part of the bargain with Walker. The company has downsized its facility to 1 million square feet, will offer a small fraction of the jobs, and will need much less water.
But no one has asked the real question: What do taxes, jobs, and transferring billions of gallons of Great Lakes water outside the Basin have to do with public water supply? What does this have to do with public services or public purpose? The answer is nothing.
The question now is: What is Governor Evers and Wisconsin citizens, and those of us in the Great Lakes Basin going to do about it? Under Scott Walker, Wisconsin bent the law and the Compact, but the new administration hasn’t done anything to remedy that. It’s time to take off the rose-colored glasses and protect the waters of the Great Lakes from becoming a subsidy and reservoir for private corporations outside the Basin.
FLOW founder and president Jim Olson delivered the following remarks — inspired by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr’s “I Have a Dream” speech — on January 12 at the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Grand Traverse.
By Jim Olson
I had a dream in 2009 and 2010. I had a dream to bring the public trust doctrine into the debate over the battle for control of our world’s water commons and what to do about the challenge to halt its destruction and control by private corporations in an increasingly intense world water crisis.
This dream grew out of the legal battle here in Michigan over the privatization of water and damage to our headwater creeks, lakes, and wetlands by Nestlé. For the first time, corporations like Nestlé sought to convert what all understood as a right to reasonably use water, to the sale of water. This was, in effect, an unprecedented massive scale of the privatization of the commons in water for exorbitant profits without paying anything. Nestlé and other corporations around the world (check out the World Water Forum) wanted to take over the public’s sovereign water—which, if it succeeded, would make every person and living being on the planet its slave.
I had a dream that our water commons would be protected by the framework and principles of the public trust doctrine—an ancient doctrine dating from days of Justinian in Rome, 1,500 year ago. The public trust doctrine puts our commons and the fundamental relationship of water to life paramount to all else, meaning it must be protected from one generation to the next. The public trust doctrine would transform us to protect the gift of water first, which in turn would sustain and foster and assure access to clean, safe water for all humanity, all living beings on this planet. Thus was born FLOW (For Love of Water).
Today, that dream is a reality because of the dedication, help, and support of many people who understand that at this time in history we cannot afford to view the natural world, especially our common water, as apart from us. It is a common gift from the creation. It preceded the human mind. The human mind is a tool, not an end in itself. If we honor this dream of the public trust in the water commons as part of our own beings, paramount to all life, we will then defeat our human desire to control, at short gain, and convert everything it can to profit, at tremendous cost to all life, the natural world, the hydrosphere itself.
I have a dream that this commons will be protected by this public trust doctrine, which many of you who have followed FLOW have heard us speak about and apply to the challenges we face here in the Great Lakes. This dream started centuries ago.
I have a dream that this commons and public trust, buried like an underground stream beneath the industrialization and capitalization of the planet in the past 200 years, will resurface and become central to our understanding and protection of the integrity of water as paramount, intrinsic in its own beingness. It will become part of our everyday life. We will then understand that if we do not protect water and all life as a commons under public trust principles, that private property and the accumulation of massive capital and wealth really has no value of all.
I have a dream that we understand that the hydrosphere itself is a being in a sense, a living water cycle in which we live will be seen as a commons.
I have a dream that this commons in the hydrosphere and the beings and life it supports are protected by the public trust doctrine, that government and personal decisions will put the commons and life first, as a primary public purpose, and that government and personal decisions must assure the protection of water from impairment from one generation to the next.
I have a dream that this will lead to dignity and respect for others and water. By following this paramount public trust framework, we and government will make very good decisions about water, health, land use, food, energy, environment, and economy.
I have a dream that if this public trust framework is not followed, that people will remove those in power by their voice, their hearts, their votes, or protest. If necessary, they will file lawsuits to stop the tyranny of private corporate control of our water commons, our health, drinking water, sustenance for life, that this will halt the tyranny of climate change, the tyranny of fires and death in Australia, California, around the world, the tyranny of massive storms, flooding, landslides.
I have a dream that this commons and public trust will stop the tyranny of the shutoff of water for more than 100,000 people in Detroit and across this world. I have a dream that there will be no water shutoffs for any person, child, or grandparent on this earth, because they don’t have the ability to pay for water.
I have a dream that this public trust and protection of the water commons will stop the destruction of lives like the exposure to lead of children and citizens of Flint or other cities and towns.
I have a dream that this public trust doctrine will assure that water is always public, that we will preserve water and treat it with dignity for all.
I have a dream that this public trust will assure that this water is a generational commons and public trust, serving all on earth for generations to come.
I have a dream that it will apply to and honor all people.
I have a dream that people will understand that we are a relationship to water, that the public trust doctrine does not just protect the water, it protects all life; that it protects the relationship between people and life.
I have a dream that if we understand this relationship between beings and life, we can protect our Great Lakes like Lake Erie, one-third of which is a green toxic soup, and our groundwater from toxins that should never be tolerated in the water we drink or use for food and bathing.
I have a dream that we understood that this water commons is us, and that in the future because of this, we will come to a peace on this earth—a peace that was created and continues in the relationship between the commons and us when the earth was formed, when we entered this earth, however that happened.
I have a dream that we can move forward together to accomplish the protection of water as commons and public trust because we come to understand that is what’s in our hearts.
Watch the full video below (Jim Olson begins speaking at 40:12).
Iowa state agencies and officials to stand trial for breach of Public Trust duty to prevent harm to streams, fishing, swimming, and drinking water
Jim Olson, FLOW President and Founder
By Jim Olson
The foot-dragging by public officials to take action against deadly algal blooms and pollution from bad farming practices finally has reached a tipping point.
It was just a matter of time before a court would step in to force state government to implement a plan to stop the high concentrations of phosphorus, nitrites, and other harmful substances reaching our public lakes and streams from large corporate farm runoff.
Last year, a federal court dismissed a a similar lawsuit filed under federal law. This time, citizens and Food and Water Watch, represented by Public Justice, a national public interest law firm started decades ago by the late Dean Robb of Suttons Bay, Michigan, filed a lawsuit to protect the public trust in the navigable waters. When each state joined the Union (Iowa obtained statehood in 1846), the state took sovereign title and control over all of the navigable waters in a state in public trust for its citizens. Under this public trust the state as trustee has an obligation to protect these waters for fishing, navigation, boating, and swimming. Iowa trial judge John Hanson has ordered a trial to hear evidence on whether the state has abdicated its duty to prevent the impairment and subordination of these public rights by private interests. If the litigants are successful, the trial court will order state officials and agencies to implement a comprehensive plan to halt the continuous pollution of the source of drinking water for over 500,000 people.
Judge Hanson got it exactly right in letting this case proceed to trial. There is a legal duty under public trust law, there has been a continuing breach of that duty by the state, and it has resulted in harm and impairment to the public trust waters, resources, and public trust uses. The direct connection between the effects of activities on land that flow into public trust waters and resources is no different than if someone discharged pollutants or sediments directly into the water. In either instance, it is a direct result of needless human conduct that interferes with the natural water cycle—water falls on earth, percolates into ground, runs off into lakes and streams. Those who interfere with or harm the water in this cycle should be held accountable for damaging and failing to protect downstream public trust waters and the rights of citizens.
Watch out, Ohio officials, you’re next. I’ve argued in past blogs that the public trust in our navigable lakes and streams means that no one can pollute or impair these streams or sacrifice and subordinate the public’s rights and interests in drinking water, fishing, boating, and swimming to private purposes or interests. Ohioans and Michiganders have been plagued with annual dead zones for years now. Every summer a thick, toxic mat of green algae spreads across the western one-third of Lake Erie, endangering drinking water, killing fish, shutting down beaches, swimming, and tourism. Every year the governor of Ohio and state officials promise to do something. Every year nothing happens to stop the runoff.
Ohio’s governors and state officials have tinkered with laws to allow farmers to take voluntary actions, but have never taken action under the public trust duty to protect Lake Erie from harm, undisputedly the result of runoff of phosphorous from intensive corporate farms and extreme weather from climate change. When our leaders in the executive and legislative branches of government fail us, it is time for citizens to call on the judicial branch. Our democracy is founded on the checks and balances of three branches of government, not two.
Last week, FLOW’s senior policy advisor and noted Great Lakes policy expert Dave Dempsey called on citizens in Ohio and Michigan to take to the courts to put an end to Ohio’s truculence. I and others have argued that Ohio officials and the polluting big farms should be forced by the courts in Ohio and Michigan (Monroe County is on Lake Erie) to put an end to this blatant private confiscation of a treasured water resource that belongs to all citizens of these and surrounding states.
On behalf of all of us who live here in the Great Lakes Basin, our state government leaders must pass laws and file lawsuits to stop the dead zones and billions of dollars in damages to the businesses, cities and towns, and people. If our leaders fail us, then like the citizens of Iowa, it is time for citizens in Ohio, Michigan, and Ontario to file lawsuits under the public trust doctrine. The time for action is now.
July is “Public Trust Month” at FLOW, a time to gather views and inspiration from people from all walks of life who live, use, enjoy, or depend on the waters of the Great Lakes Basin for life, recreation, and livelihood.
This is because FLOW’s mission is to assure that decisions and actions that affect the Great Lakes are undertaken in the framework of ancient principles, embedded in our law as deep as the Great Lakes and the soils beneath them. These principles, known as the public trust doctrine, recognize the duty of government as trustee to protect, and the rights of the public as beneficiaries to enjoy, these public trust waters and their paramount public nature and uses from one generation to the next.
On July 4, my wife Judy and I hosted a large family picnic at our house in Benzie County.After enjoying the food and multiple conversations going on at once, some of us, with pant legs rolled up above the knees, found ourselves wading in the Platte River with several grandchildren.Watching them totter and frolic in the fast current—their ages ranging from 3 to 23—I had this thought:Liberty includes the gift of freedom to enjoy public trust waters like the Platte River, here in Michigan, and the Great Lakes, and waters throughout the United States and beyond. The public trust in our water resources is a principle that protects and passes on this gift from one generation to the next.
The public trust doctrine is often traced from the Justinian Code 1,600 years ago: “By the law of Nature, these things are common to [humankind]: the air, running water, the sea, and consequently the shore of the sea.”The doctrine reappeared in 1215 in that “Great Charter of Liberty,” the Magna Carta, to restore the custom and rights of the people to access to the rivers and sea for food and sustenance.
On July 4, 1976, the Declaration of Independence declared:“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.”
The U.S. Constitution was adopted and ratified between 1787 and 1788, and not long after, the Bill of Rights in 1791 declared that no government—federal, state, or local—can deprive a person of the right to “life, liberty, and property” or “other rights [not listed] retained by the people.”
In 1821, in the first of a long line of decisions adopted in similar form as the common law of the people by the courts of every state, the Supreme Court of New Jersey nullified an attempt by a landowner to exclude the public from the seabeds, navigable waters, and their near shores because these waters and special lands were public common property held in a public trust for the benefit of all citizens of a state.
In 1892, the United States Supreme Court reaffirmed the public trust doctrine in the navigable waters, the soils under them, and the shoreline below the high water mark.An influential railroad company hoodwinked a compliant Illinois legislature into granting it almost one square mile of Lake Michigan for a private industrial complex. This didn’t sit well with Illinois residents, especially those who lived in Chicago, and the next session of the legislature repealed the grant.The company, of course, notified the state that it was too late; they owned the bottomlands and waters of Lake Michigan.
The Supreme Court rejected the company’s claim, and in a landmark decision ruled that the grant to a private company or person was void because the special common public waters and lands owned and held by the states in public trust were “inalienable”! This means that no government can pass a law that deprives a citizen of the inalienable rights, as beneficiary of the public trust, to enjoy and use these waters and special trust lands for fishing, navigating, boating, swimming, bathing, and sustenance—drinking water and growing food.
Imagine that, an inalienable right derived from Roman law, the Magna Carta, and English common law came down to this country because of the “inalienable rights” covered by the Declaration of Independence and American Revolution, and that this “inalienable right” is protected by the public trust doctrine.It is a right that cannot be taken away or repealed, and it is protected by the rights to “life, liberty, and property” and the “other rights of the people” in our Constitution!
Today, courts around the country are recognizing that the rights of citizens to an individual and indivisible right under the public trust doctrine fall within our “life, liberty, and property” protected by our Constitution.
Talk about a gift for all of us to celebrate during the afterglow of Independence Day and throughout FLOW’s “Public Trust Month” of July. This is one to be thankful for, exercise, and protect for ourselves, our children, grandchildren, and all future generations.
“The Great Lakes belong to all of us. It’s in our DNA,” said FLOW executive director Liz Kirkwood. “We know that those waters that surround us, that bathe us, that nurture us underneath our feet, are inalienable rights for all.”
During this high-water month of July, FLOW will publish video postcards each weekday that feature Michiganders (and citizens of the Great Lakes Basin) explaining what the Public Trust Doctrine means to us and how our precious, publicly-owned fresh water shapes our lives and relationship to this place we call home.
“We chose July because this is the height of summer and the connections people have with our waters,” added Kirkwood. “This is an opportunity for us to renew our commitment to the Great Lakes and think about what stewardship really means. What will we do to make sure these waters are protected for our children and our children’s children?”
At its core, the Public Trust is a set of legal principles establishing the public right to our natural resources. It also establishes the government’s responsibility to protect public health and public rights to use those natural resources. Our goal is to increase everyday awareness about the Public Trust and make it feel less like a legal term and more like an existential code by which we all live.
We saw the Public Trust Doctrine in action last week when the State of Michigan and Attorney General Dana Nessel took the important step of defending the Great Lakes by suing Enbridge and alleging that its occupation of Line 5 violates the Public Trust.
“When Michigan and other states joined this country, the states took title to all navigable waters and the soils beneath them like the Great Lakes in trust for the benefit of its citizens,” said Jim Olson, FLOW president and founder and nationally recognized expert on public trust law. “This means the State has a duty to protect these waters, soils, natural resources, and the rights and uses of citizens from one generation to the next.
“Every citizen is a legally recognized beneficiary for use and enjoyment of these public trust resources for fishing, boating, drinking water, bathing, swimming, and other recreational activities. Governments and private persons cannot interfere with, impair, dispose of or alienate these public trust resources or preferred public rights and uses.”
Olson underscored the importance of the Public Trust Doctrine and its principles at this time in history.
“Whether oil pipelines in the Great Lakes, toxic algae and ‘dead zones’ in Lake Erie, Green Bay, or along Sleeping Bear Dunes, the sale and private control of public water, changes in water levels, erosion, flooding and damage to piers, docks, roads, water infrastructure from global warming and climate climate, the public trust in our waters offers all of us a path forward to address the existing damage and threats, and the world water and climate crisis. When government fails or others refuse to change, citizens have the right to enforce the law to protect their rights and the common good of the community, and their children and grandchildren.”
Our Public Trust video postcards this month will feature everyone from a U.S. Senator and a state Attorney General, to leading environmental advocates, to poets and dancers, to boaters and fishermen, to everyday citizens recreating, beach walking and swimming in their public waters. Through these videos, we hope to empower citizens, educate people about beach access rights, discuss the importance of protecting our groundwater, and reinforce the importance of protecting our freshwater in the age of Climate Change.
On the Fourth of July, we’ll also unveil an online “Public Trust Passport” that you can view, download or print, and use as a handy guide to learn more about your freshwater recreation rights.
Stay tuned to FLOW’s social media feed to learn why Sen. Gary Peters loves backpacking at Isle Royal National Park, why poet Anne-Marie Oomen loves to paddleboard, why toddler Judah Heitman digs swimming and kayaking, and the lifelong resonance of fly fishing with her father on the Boardman River for dancer Sarah Wolff.
Today represents a historic turning point for all Michiganders. Attorney General (AG) Dana Nessel took decisive legal action on Pipeline 5 in the Straits of Mackinac when she filed suit in Ingham County Circuit Court to revoke the 1953 Easement that conditionally authorized Enbridge to pump oil through twin pipelines.
Nessel’s lawsuit alleges that Enbridge’s continued operation of the Straits Pipelines violates the Public Trust Doctrine, is a common law public nuisance, and violates the Michigan Environmental Protection Act because it is likely to cause pollution, impairment, and destruction of water and other natural resources. Simultaneously, Governor Whitmer and the natural resources and environmental protection agencies have taken action through the AG to dismiss Enbridge’s June 6 lawsuit to defend the public’s rights and waters of the Great Lakes.
“I have consistently stated that Enbridge’s pipelines in the Straits need to be shut down as soon as possible because they present an unacceptable risk to the Great Lakes,” said the Attorney General. “Governor Whitmer tried her best to reach an agreement that would remove the pipelines from the Straits on an expedited basis, but Enbridge walked away from negotiations and instead filed a lawsuit against the state. Once that occurred, there was no need for further delay.”
Gov. Gretchen Whitmer also ordered the Michigan Department of Natural Resources to review violations of the Line 5 easement. As the state’s top leader and public trustee, Whitmer has the express legal authority to revoke the easement to start decommissioning the pipeline.
“The governor’s primary goal has always been and remains to get the Line 5 dual pipelines out of the Straits of Mackinac as soon as possible,” said Whitmer’s press secretary Tiffany Brown today in a statement. “The risk of a catastrophic oil spill in the Great Lakes, and the harm that would follow to Michigan’s economy, tourism, and our way of life, is far too great to allow the pipelines to continue to operate indefinitely. As a recent National Transportation Safety Board report documented, any doubt as to the risk posed by Line 5 was erased in April 2018 when a barge dragging a 12,000-pound anchor nearly caused disaster.”
FLOW (For Love of Water) commends Attorney General Nessel’s and Governor Whitmer’s legal actions against Enbridge. It’s about time Michigan’s government is standing up for our public waters — waters located in arguably the worst possible place in the Great Lakes for an oil spill to happen.
“Today, Attorney General Nessel returns Michigan and the protection of its citizens, taxpayers, and the Great Lakes to the rule of law,” said Jim Olson, president and founder of FLOW. “Governor Whitmer’s action on behalf of the state to nullify the lame-duck tunnel agreements also returns Michigan to the rule of law. They should be thanked. No, they should be applauded.”
Nessel’s move comes three weeks after Enbridge sued the State of Michigan on June 6 to claim its right to continue operating Line 5 and to build and operate a tunnel under the Great Lakes for the next 99 years. It comes just over six months after former Governor Snyder, former Attorney General Schuette and lawmakers gifted Enbridge a one-sided law and set of agreements during their last days in office that handed control of Great Lakes waters and soils beneath the Straits of Mackinac to a private Canadian company for its private gain.
Act 359 and the agreements during the 2018 lame-duck session were designed to allow Enbridge to continue the dangerous and unacceptably grave risks of a failing Line 5 design until the company builds a tunnel to lease for the next 99 years, with massive potential liabilities for the State and citizen taxpayers.
“The deal was approved by a lame-duck session law that was based on dubious constitutional and legal grounds, and sought to suspend the rule of law in Michigan, binding citizens and the state to the control of part of the Great Lakes for the next century,” said Olson. “The Snyder administration helped Enbridge run around our state constitution and evade the rule of law that protects the public’s ownership and rights in the Great Lakes.”
New year, new administration
After taking office on Jan. 1, Governor Whitmer’s first move was to direct Attorney General Nessel to examine the legality of the lame-duck tunnel deal. AG Nessel ruled in March that Act 359 violated Michigan law and openly violated the state constitution. Whitmer quickly ordered the executive branch to adhere to Nessel’s opinion, preventing the implementation by state agencies of the unlawful deal.
On June 6, Enbridge reacted by filing a lawsuit against the State in an attempt to resuscitate the lame-duck law and agreements, claiming easements and the right to continue using the existing Line 5 in the Straits indefinitely—or until it gets a 99-year tunnel and new pipeline to transport crude oil from Alberta and through Michigan into Ontario.
The Attorney General telegraphed her decision to stand with the Great Lakes. At the Mackinac Policy Conference in late May she told WWMT-TV in West Michigan, “I’m tired of it and we can’t have a private company be more important than the natural resources and residents of our state. They don’t own us, they don’t own the natural resources in this state and I think it’s time that we had elected leaders in office that recognize that.”
On the campaign trail in 2018, Nessel ran on a message to shut down Line 5.
“No state can cede the Great Lakes or soils under them to a person or private corporation,” said Olson. “These lakes and the soils under them are held in public trust for fishing, boating, drinking water, recreation, bathing, swimming for all citizens. This trust cannot be suspended by private agreements. The use of these trust waters and soils can only be authorized under law with transparent findings that there is no private deal or gain and no risk of impairment of current and future generations.”
Our freshwater seas are of paramount importance to Michiganders, and citizens throughout the Great Lakes basin. They uphold our economy and represent our very way of life. According to the Great Lakes Commission, Michigan has more than 3,000 miles of freshwater coastline and 11,000 inland lakes that provide residents, businesses, and visitors with access to nearly 20 percent of the world’s surface freshwater. More than 800,000 Michigan jobs and $62 billion in resulting annual wages are directly linked to the Great Lakes.
An oil spill in the turbulent Straits of Mackinac between Lakes Michigan and Huron, where the currents create a washing machine effect, could jeopardize all that we are as Michiganders.
“This is a watershed moment in the battle to decommission Line 5, prevent a catastrophic oil spill, and protect the Great Lakes, an economic engine for our state and the source of drinking water for millions,” said FLOW executive director Liz Kirkwood. “Attorney General Nessel and Governor Whitmer made strong campaign promises to shut down Line 5, and now our elected leaders are making good on their commitment to protect the Great Lakes.”
Reactions from local leaders — both in city hall and in the private sector — were strong.
“Shutting down Line 5 is a priority to those in northern Michigan who rely on the economic benefits of the natural resources we have in our Great Lakes,” said Traverse City Mayor Jim Carruthers. “Our Attorney General is right for supporting the immediate shut down of this aging Enbridge Pipeline under our Straits, to ward off the devastating effects of a breach that will destroy all that is important to life ‘up north’. As the mayor of Traverse City, I wholeheartedly support these actions to protect the waters around my city for all to enjoy and benefit from.”
Business owners like Brian Schwartz of eightyfive MILES, a lifestyle apparel and accessory brand company, reflected on the economic value and significance of the Great Lakes.
“I am the owner of a Great Lakes’ inspired start-up and former hedge manager, and I don’t see Enbridge’s enthusiasm or desire to fund a $500 million tunnel project,” he said. “We believe it’s a faulty plan and the time is now to shut down Line 5. We support Attorney General Dana Nessel in the State’s battle to shut down this aging pipeline. Our company contributes a share of revenues to support Great Lakes’ conservation and it would be an ecological disaster and economic catastrophe to Michigan if the pipe were to burst. There’s no need to put the State’s livelihood and environment at risk.”
“Despite the posturing and rhetoric of Enbridge’s media scheme, there are alternatives to the existing Line 5 that do not require a tunnel,” said Olson. “These include delivering propane for those pockets of customers in the Upper Peninsula, and the use of excess capacity in other Enbridge lines that run across southern Michigan and northern Indiana to Canada and Detroit. We don’t need a 99-year tunnel and pipeline in light of plummeting demand for crude oil as the world economy rapidly shifts to renewable energy.”
“The Enbridge lawsuit is a diversion from the reality that the 540,000 barrels of oil are pulsating through a 66-year old pipeline, which is peppered with design flaws, gouges, corrosion, and unavoidably threatened with another anchor strike at any time.”
Enbridge has failed to prove itself as a trustworthy and transparent partner. Time and time again, Enbridge has withheld information, attempting to hide Line 5’s design flaws, pipeline coating, cracks, gouges, corrosion, and the April 1, 2018 anchor strike that nearly caused a calamitous spill, anchor strikes, and more. Enbridge’s operational track record is dismal. Its Line 6B Kalamazoo River disaster in 2010, one of the largest inland oil spills in U.S. history, cost $1.3 billion in damages. Line 5 has suffered 33 known spills, leaking approximately 1.1 million gallons of oil into Michigan’s environment.
An increasingly desperate Enbridge is enlisting allies to engage in what can only be deemed a deceitful Chicken Little campaign. The Canadian company wildly alleges that “shutting down Line 5, even temporarily, would mean lost union jobs, refinery closures, gas price spikes and greater harm to the regional economy every year.” The campaign is designed to scare officials into giving the company what it wants — a 99-year lease to use the people’s waters and lakebed to transport refined dirty tar sands oil from western Canada primarily to Sarnia, Ontario.
Enbridge makes the absurd claim that the PBF refinery in Toledo, Ohio, would lose a thousand jobs if Line 5 is shut down. But that directly contradicts statements PBF says in its own investor filings, as well as reports from market analysts, emphasizing the refinery has several sources of supply and can adjust them depending on market conditions. PBF also claims that 40% of the jet fuel used at Detroit Metropolitan Airport comes from refined Line 5 petroleum. But PBF and the Marathon Detroit refineries appear to supply only about 9% of the jet fuel used at the airport each day. Alternative pipeline sources can more than make that up. Impacts of a Line 5 shutdown on Metro Airport jet fuel have never before been raised as an issue in the Line 5 debate or when Line 6B ruptured and closed in 2010. Its introduction at the 11th hour after more than five years of controversy over the fate of Line 5 is a transparent effort to alarm the public.
Enbridge has alternatives within its pipeline system to meet all of its and Michigan’s needs without using the Mackinac Straits and the Great Lakes. There are several good solutions to assure continued delivery of propane to rural areas in the Upper Peninsula. It may even save Enbridge and its shareholders from shouldering a future stranded asset, as the need for Alberta crude oil, including through Line 5, will plummet in the next decade with the rise of the new renewable energy economy backed by public demand.
Enbridge has a track record of misleading the public and governments about its performance, and its recent efforts are consistent with the company’s apparent philosophy of saying anything to keep Line 5 petroleum — and profits — flowing.
FLOW applauds Michigan’s top leaders — Gov. Whitmer and AG Nessel — for their leadership in defending the people’s rights and public waters of the Great Lakes.
“Public spaces, infrastructure, and Great Lakes beaches are underwater,” says FLOW founder and president Jim Olson. “We see the effects of rising Great Lake water levels everywhere, from Chicago’s treasured waterfront, to Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore, to Clinch Park here in Traverse City.”
“The question becomes: What does this mean, and what might citizens do about it?”
Legally, the Public Trust Doctrine protects the rights of citizens to walk along the beach or shore in the area below the Natural or Ordinary High Water Mark (OHWM) along the Great Lakes, along with the rights of fishing, boating, and swimming, explains Olson. But what happens when the water rises above the Natural High Water level or mark?
The Public Trust Doctrine assures walking the beach along the shore above the Natural High Water Mark as long as people walk within the so-called “swosh” or wet zone. This is why the doctrine relies on the definition of “natural”—the beach defined by wave action and other natural forces. Generally, this means that if you stay within the wet, compacted sand or stones you are safe and not trespassing on the property of riparian landowners.
So when the water is high, that means that walking the Great Lakes shoreline along private property is allowed. Plopping down with your beach towels, cooler, or firewood is not.
Climate Change Infringes on Public Trust
“The public is also right to wonder: what happens when the water rises to the toe or up a bluff, completely shutting off public access along the shore?” Olson said.
Legally, the Public Trust Doctrine prohibits any interference or impairment of the public’s right to access and walk along the shore. Members of the public can insist, by court action if necessary, that the interference or impairment must be prevented or minimized by those who are responsible.
In the case of the current extremely high water levels, the most recent United Nations International Panel on Climate Change pins the cause of unprecedented high water levels in the Great Lakes on the effects on climate, evaporation, precipitation caused by greenhouse gases.
So, legally, citizens have a right to demand—through lawsuits if necessary—that government and industries causing higher and higher levels of global warming reduce their greenhouse gases. Why? Because their action or inaction is impairing one of the public’s valuable protected rights—access to walk along the shore–in violation of the Public Trust Doctrine.
Danger at Sleeping Bear Dunes
The Glen Arbor Sun reports that with the “Ordinary High Water Mark” on Sleeping Bear Bay currently under water and cliffs marking the Natural High Water Mark, the question of where one can walk the beach becomes more than a question of trespassing or the Public Trust. Now the issue is safety.
That has prompted staff at Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore, in northwest lower Michigan to discourage the public from running down popular water-facing dunes or cliffs like the overlook from Pierce Stocking Scenic Drive.
The issue is serious—and potentially dangerous. National Lakeshore Deputy Superintendent Tom Ulrich said that Lakeshore staff recently had a meeting to figure out how to help climbers stuck on the dune below the Pierce Stocking overlook. They used to help those not in need of immediate life support walk back down to the shoreline and then south to North Bar Lake (sometimes with the help of their ATV, if needed).
“No more!” Ulrich said. “That route is impossible now. You cannot walk to North Bar Lake.” The only alternative is calling a boat out of Leland, which will take an additional 30-60 minutes to arrive.
“That’s why, this year, we’re going to try to let people know this is a really bad choice … to descend that slope, because our rescue is so limited.”
The problem exists up and down the Lake Michigan shoreline. One beach at the Indiana Dunes National Park is temporarily closed because wave action has created a cliff-enclosed beach. Walkers are also warned not to walk out on piers when waves break over them for fear they will be washed away.
On May 20, ABC Channel 57 in Indiana reported that last year was the deadliest ever for Lake Michigan with 42 deaths. This year has already seen seven fatalities, according to the Great Lakes Surf Rescue Project.
FLOW Statement on Negotiations Between Gov. Whitmer and Enbridge on Line 5 Tunnel, Pipeline
Traverse City, Mich. –FLOW (For Love of Water) issued the following statement on the disclosure that Gov. Gretchen Whitmer and Enbridge Energy will discuss expediting construction of an oil tunnel beneath the Straits of Mackinac while the company’s troubled Line 5 pipelines continue operation in the Straits:
“We are concerned about this development. Every day that the Line 5 pipelines continue to operate is a risk to our precious Great Lakes,” said FLOW executive director Liz Kirkwood. “State government’s efforts should first and foremost be devoted to shutting the pipeline down, not negotiating its continued operation while a tunnel is explored and possibly built.
“Now that the Governor has chosen to engage in this process, we hope and trust it will be a transparent one. It is unfortunate that her predecessor engaged in secret talks on agreements with Enbridge, and the lame-duck Legislature was so eager to benefit Enbridge that it passed a sloppy statute that the Attorney General ruled unconstitutional. We are confident this Governor will operate differently,” Kirkwood said.
“We are also hopeful that the Governor will restore and apply the rule of law to Enbridge’s operations in the Straits. Any easement or lease of Great Lakes bottomlands and any private control for a 99-year tunnel by a private company like Enbridge for a private operation must be authorized under the Great Lakes Submerged Lands Act (GLSLA),” said Jim Olson, President of FLOW.
“The GLSLA ensures a public review, analysis, participation, and a determination under standards that protect the public trust in the waters of the Great Lakes and the soils beneath them from privatization and impairment. It also ensures a thorough evaluation of feasible and prudent alternatives, including ones that do not involve use or control of the Great Lakes. No agreement between the executive branch and a private company can override this fundamental law,” Olson said.