By Kelly House, Bridge Michigan
The Great Lakes News Collaborative includes Bridge Michigan; Circle of Blue; Great Lakes Now at Detroit Public Television; and Michigan Radio, Michigan’s NPR News Leader; who work together to bring audiences news and information about the impact of climate change, pollution, and aging infrastructure on the Great Lakes and drinking water. This independent journalism is supported by the Charles Stewart Mott Foundation. Find all the work HERE.
ST. IGNACE — Barbara Brown was visiting a friend when she heard about Enbridge’s latest act of generosity in town.
“She asked me if I had gotten my whitefish,” Brown said, and showed a bag of “beautiful, big fillets” bearing the company’s logo.
The Canadian petroleum giant, whose Line 5 pipeline crosses the Straits of Mackinac just outside town, had co-sponsored a giveaway at the local community action agency, working with St. Ignace-based Massey Fish Company to distribute 2,000 pounds of whitefish to 400 seniors.
The friend, like Brown, is not a fan of Enbridge. But for the friend, about 40 bucks worth of free whitefish was reason enough to set differences aside, if only momentarily.
Brown felt differently, viewing the whitefish as an effort to woo residents to Enbridge’s side.
“I thought it was an aggressive influence campaign,” said Brown, a former state judge who serves on the board of For Love of Water, a northern Michigan nonprofit that opposes Line 5.
Since the company’s oil pipelines became a hot-button political topic in Michigan, Enbridge has steadily ramped up its physical and philanthropic presence in the Straits, hiring staff, installing surveillance infrastructure, buying land and donating to all manner of local causes.
But as the company continues to defy a state order to shut down Line 5, its opponents view the largesse as part of an effort to curry favor with local residents and public officials who could influence debates about the pipeline’s fate.
Others welcome the donations as further evidence that Enbridge cares about the community — stewardship that they say is also evident in the company’s efforts to better monitor its 68-year-old pipeline after a series of anchor strikes since 2018 heightened concern about a potential oil spill.
The company’s growing local presence begs a question: Where does one draw the line between being a good corporate citizen and political lobbying?
Whitefish, fire equipment and propane
As it often does after donating money or goods in the Straits, Enbridge quickly followed the June 10 whitefish giveaway with a press release alerting area media.
“Enbridge has a long-standing commitment working within our communities,” senior community engagement analyst Emma Cook said in the release. “Being able to partner with Massey Fish to benefit many St. Ignace residents makes the event doubly worthwhile.”
The release noted that fish giveaways are just a small part of Enbridge’s philanthropy. In total, it said, the company has spent more than $19 million in “community-strengthening initiatives” across North America.
Jamie Massey, who partnered with Enbridge on the whitefish giveaway, sees that as a good thing.
“Anybody that would offer assistance to our community is welcome,” he said. And as for Line 5 itself? “That pipeline, in my opinion, has sat out there on the bottom for 60 years and not bothered anybody.”
But Enbridge’s opponents in the Straits argue the company’s local generosity is a textbook public influence campaign, not well-intentioned corporate stewardship. If Enbridge gains state and federal permits for its proposed Line 5 tunnel, it is likely to need local-level permits thereafter.
“They’re trying to, in my opinion, to make St. Ignace as much of a company town as they can,” said David Holtz, spokesperson for the anti-Line 5 group Oil & Water Don’t Mix.
Weeks before the whitefish giveaway, Enbridge provided free propane tank refills in Cheboygan and St. Ignace.
Other examples of Enbridge largesse include $36,700 to buy new equipment for the Mackinaw City Fire Department, $28,840 for a new cardiac monitor at Cheboygan Life Support Systems, support for a fall celebration in Mackinaw City and fish stocking in Lake Brevort, and some $20,000 in donations to the Pellston food pantry.
The company has also paid millions of dollars — as much as eight times above market value — for properties in the Straits area near the path of the company’s proposed tunnel.
And Enbridge, like many other local businesses, has sponsored the local Feeding America food truck. But unusually, said Patty Peek, a Line 5 opponent who volunteers with Feeding America, a sandwich board placed near the truck advertised the fact that Enbridge was providing the food.
Pellston Area Food Pantry Director Randy Bricker said he was delighted when Enbridge called him a couple of years ago to ask if the pantry would like help.
“They’ve been giving us donations ever since,” he said — a welcome boost for a nonprofit organization that operates on a shoestring. Bricker said he believes Enbridge’s generosity has nothing to do with currying favor for Line 5.
In fact, he said, in all his conversations with Enbridge about the pantry, “we have never mentioned the pipeline. Never.”
Cook, who joined Enbridge to fill a newly-created public relations position based in the Straits in 2016, said the company feels an obligation to give back to communities where its employees live and work. That generosity is not about swaying minds, she said.
“I don’t know if maybe there’s just more eyes on Enbridge now,” she said, “but for two decades we’ve had corporate giving programs across North America. We’re committed to supporting and strengthening the communities that we work and operate in.”
Brown, who sits on the local downtown development authority, recalls an Enbridge staff member showing up at a meeting offering generosity that the DDA had never sought. The 67-year-old, who was raised in St. Ignace, said she doesn’t remember the company showing such interest in local causes in the past.
“From my vantage point, this aggressive corporate charity, if you want to call it that, started around the time they needed the tunnel,” she said.
The tunnel debate
Enbridge, whose Straits pipeline had operated in obscurity in the Straits for decades, became a controversial name after its line 6B pipeline ruptured in 2010, spilling more than 840,000 gallons of crude oil into the Kalamazoo River.
A subsequent probe by the National Wildlife Federation alerted Michignders to the existence of another aging Enbridge pipeline in the Straits, one of the most tempestuous waterways on earth.
In the years since, Enbridge has dramatically staffed up in the Straits, from one full-time employee in 2011 to eight full-time employees and 20 contractors today.
Amid growing public concern about the danger of an oil spill from Line 5, Enbridge struck a deal with then-Gov. Rick Snyder to move the pipeline inside a concrete tunnel deep beneath the lakebed. Enbridge still needs a host of state, federal and possibly local permits to build the project.
Enbridge is not the first controversial company to receive blowback for philanthropic efforts that opponents have read as attempts to sway public sentiment. Nestle, for example, made hay when it launched a TV ad campaign to brag about its charity in Flint following that city’s lead-tainted water crisis. And the company’s Ice Mountain bottled water operation, which has since been sold to two New York private equity firms, has sponsored numerous local causes in communities near its Stanwood bottled water operations.
Massey, who owns the St. Ignace fish company, sees concerns about Enbridge’s donations as unreasonable. Other businesses donate to local causes all the time, he noted.
And it’s true: The scoreboard at the local ball diamond bears the logos of the local grocery store, McDonald’s and a pizza place. Other businesses have hosted local giveaways and sponsored food trucks, too.
“I can’t imagine somebody saying, ‘this business can sponsor this or this business can have a sign, and this business can’t,’” Massey said. What makes Enbridge any different?
Holtz, of Oil & Water Don’t Mix, said the answer can be found in the pipeline spill from 2010: “They’re… responsible for the largest inland oil spill in North American history.”
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Featured image: Workers pose with a crate of whitefish. Enbridge Energy and Massey Fish Company partnered to distribute free whitefish to area seniors, drawing cheers from allies and jeers from opponents who question the motives behind the company’s generosity. (Photo courtesy of Enbridge)