Michigan A.G. Dana Nessel’s team to make arguments in historic public trust case to end threat of Great Lakes oil spill
By Jim Olson
Streaming live online this Friday morning, Michigan Attorney General Dana Nessel or members of her staff—attorneys Peter Manning, Bob Reichel, and Dan Bock, steeped in water and natural resources law—will make historic arguments to bring Line 5 in the Straits of Mackinac under the rule of law and lead to its orderly closure. Nessel’s action was taken to protect the public trust of all of Michigan’s citizens, now and in the future, in Attorney General Dana Nessel On Behalf of the People of Michigan v. Enbridge Energy, Limited Partnership, et al., before Ingham County Circuit Court Judge James S. Jamo.
Click here to view FLOW’s amicus brief in the Nessel v. Enbridge case, as well as amici briefs also filed by the Sierra Club and three states in support of Michigan Attorney General’s lawsuit to shut down Enbridge’s Line 5.
Line 5 in Court: Watch Live on Friday, May 22, at 9 a.m. EST
The public can watch this legal effort by the State of Michigan to shut down Line 5, which is supported FLOW and other organizations standing up for the public trust in our Great Lakes. This case is set for oral argument at 9 a.m. on Friday, May 22. According to the Court, you may watch the hearing by tuning in to the livestream on Judge Jamo’s YouTube Channel.
After 6 years of stalling and unfulfilled promises by former Governor Rick Snyder’s administration and former Attorney General Bill Schuette, Michigan voters in 2018 ushered in new leaders—Governor Gretchen Whitmer and Attorney General Dana Nessel, who pledged to end Line 5’s threat to the Straits, where Lake Michigan converges and collides with Lake Huron.
Last June, Attorney General Nessel fulfilled her promise to take swift, strong action to bring an end to the unacceptable, massive, catastrophic risk of damage to the Great Lakes posed by Enbridge’s 67-year-old Line 5 the Straits of Mackinac.
Growing Pile of Evidence against Line 5
The State of Michigan’s legal action comes in response to growing evidence of Line 5’s failed design, anchor strikes, strong currents, sloughing and shored-up pipelines operating beyond their life expectancy, admitted inability to clean up a spill, and a conservative, worst-case scenario rupture from an anchor strike (which actually happened on April 1, 2018, narrowly avoiding a spill) forecast to trigger more than $6 billion of measurable damages. Scientific studies show that a spill would smother several hundred miles of shoreline, affect up to 60 percent of Lake Huron’s surface area and a substantial portion of Lake Michigan, close drinking water and sanitation systems of cities like Mackinac Island, shut down fishing, kill fish and fish habitat, halt shipping, and cause irreparable damage and impairment of public uses, private property, businesses, and the ecological diversity of the upper reaches of two Great Lakes.
As the chief legal officer of the people of Michigan, A.G. Nessel filed a lawsuit, not just as an attorney, but as the named Plaintiff for the People of Michigan—she is bringing this action as Attorney General and on behalf of the citizens of Michigan to decommission and shut down Line 5 because of its unlawful breach of the public trust in the Great Lakes, failing design and imminent risks in the Straits of Mackinac.
Historic Public Trust Case the First brought by a Michigan Attorney General for the People in 60 Years
The attorney general’s action is truly historic. Why?
It has been 60 years since an Attorney General of Michigan filed a lawsuit to protect the paramount public trust in the Great Lakes and legal rights of citizens as beneficiaries to enjoy and use our waters for navigation, fishing, boating, drinking water, swimming, historic and biological research, and recreation. That’s right. It’s been 60 years since then Michigan Attorney General, later state Supreme Court Justice, Paul Adams won a landmark victory in 1960 in Obrecht v National Gypsum Co. (361 Mich 399 (1960)), a landmark Michigan Supreme Court case putting a stop to unauthorized industrial encroachment and risk to the public trust and paramount protected uses of our Great Lakes.
Cottage owners and citizens along the shore of Lake Huron filed a lawsuit to stop the encroachment of a large industrial loading dock to reach ships a quarter-mile into Lake Huron. Justice Adams intervened as a party in the case and aligned himself and the People of Michigan with the cottagers and citizens whose use and enjoyment of the trust waters of Lake Huron would be subordinated to the private use of the industrial dock and mining company. After an extensive battle in the lower courts and arguments in the Supreme Court, the Court sided with Justice Adams and the people of Michigan.
Writing for the Court, Justice Black, a lawyer from the shoreline City of Port Huron, foreshadowed the future battles over the Great Lakes:
The last great frontiers of Michigan’s public domain lie submerged between her thousands of miles of shoreline… [T]he courts of these inland coastal states may well brace themselves for a series of new questions having to do with the nature and alienability of sovereign title to such domain and the inevitable collision of riparian rights… with the sovereign responsibility [of the state] as permanent trustee thereof. These cases become a notable forerunner. (Id. 361 Mich at 403)
The defendant National Gypsum Corporation claimed the private riparian right as owner of lake frontage to build a dock into the lake as far as needed to reach deep-draft ships. Justice Adams and his allies argued that the private right was subordinate to the public trust rights of citizens. Reaching back to 100 years of court fights over the St. Clair Flats and Lake Michigan, and relying on the 1892 U.S. Supreme Court Illinois Central case that ruled the Great Lakes were subject to the public trust doctrine, our Michigan Court ruled that a private corporation could not subordinate or alienate the public trust in the Great Lakes:
No part of the beds of the Great Lakes, belonging to Michigan can be alienated or otherwise devoted to private use in the absence of due finding of one of two exceptional reasons for such alienation or devotion to non-public use.
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No one… has the right to construct for private use a permanent deep-water dock or pier on the bottom lands of the Great Lakes… unless and until he has sought and received, from the legislature or its authorized agency, such assent based on the finding as will legally warrant the intended use of such lands. Indeed, and aside from the common law as expounded in Illinois Central, the legislature bids us construe its design and purpose ‘so as to preserve and protect the interests of the general public’ in such submerged lands and as authorizing the sale, lease, exchange or other disposition of such submerged lands when and only when it is ‘determined by the department of conservation that such lands have no substantial public value for hunting, fishing, swimming, pleasure boating or navigation and that the general public interest will not be impaired by such sales, lease or other disposition.’ (Id., at 412-413, citing and adopting Illinois Central R. Co. v. Illinois, 146 U.S. 387, 455-60 (1892)).
The Public Trust Imposes a High, Solemn Duty on the Government
Unlike other natural resource laws, the public trust imposes a high, solemn duty on the government to protect these waters, bottomlands, habitat, shorelines, and paramount public uses from private takeover or impairment (Collins v Gerhardt, 237 Mich 38, 49 (1926). The public trust doctrine imposes on the State as trustee “a high solemn and perpetual trust which it is the duty of the State to forever maintain.”). Justice Black and the Court agreed “with the attorney general that the public title and right is supreme as against National Gypsum’s asserted right of wharfage, and hold that the latter may be exercised by the Company only in accordance with the regulatory assent of the State. No such assent has been given and, for that reason alone, the chancellor erred in decreeing that National Gypsum might proceed with what in law has become, since entry of such decrees, an entry upon and unlawful detention of State property.” (Id., at 413-414)
So, in 2020 once again a collision looms over the right of a corporation to occupy for itself the state-titled trust bottomlands and waters of the Straits of Mackinac, the very heart of the Great Lakes, for its aged dual pipelines to transport crude oil to its private markets. It cannot do so without the assent of the State “in the absence of due findings” that the one or two of the narrow exceptions apply. In short, public trust law as one would expect does not authorize any deed, occupancy, or alienation of public trust bottomlands and waters except where there are findings that the private use protects and promotes the public trust interests and protected uses—navigation, fishing, boating, drinking water, swimming, and other recreational or ecological purposes—or that these treasured public trust resources have no such public value.
Courtroom Context on May 22
Let’s return to the present, May 2020. Like Paul Adams in 1960, our State Attorney General Dana Nessel and her lawyers Manning, Reichel, and Bock have filed briefs and will argue Friday that the 67-year-old Enbridge Line 5, like National Gypsum’s private industrial dock in 1960, is unlawful under the high, solemn public trust law and duties of government that apply to our Great Lakes.
The facts are undisputed. In 1953, after the legislature delegated authority to grant public utility easements over or under state lands, including our public trust Great Lakes, the Department of Conservation never made any findings that the easement to Enbridge for its dual crude oil pipelines (1) would preserve and protect the public’s public interests and uses, or (2) do not have substantial public value for navigation, fishing, boating, swimming, other accepted public trust uses. Without these findings, Line 5 must be terminated. The only way the Enbridge’s private use can be validated is for the company to apply to the State for findings in 2020 that the known risks of devastating unacceptable harm to the Great Lakes, communities, property owners, businesses and citizens is consistent with and will protect these paramount public trust uses, or that the Straits of Mackinac has no public value for these uses.
A Powerful Mix of Duty, Integrity, Courage on Display
We applaud Attorney General Nessel and her legal staff for their courage to take a stand in fulfillment of their solemn duty to protect and preserve the integrity of the public trust in our bottomlands and waters of or Great Lakes. Yes, this case is about integrity, and it has all the hallmarks to become the next historical milestone in the history and jurisprudence over the great frontier of those lands and waters between our shores.