David Glenn and Jennifer Martin-Romme
In the woods northwest of Duluth, the water protectors are getting ready again. Tents and tipis dot 20 acres of private land, peeking out from among thick groves of spruce and poplar. Beneath a handmade welcome sign, a sacred fire perpetually burns, giving off the smell of sage.
Since January, about a dozen veterans of last year’s Standing Rock protests against the Dakota Access Pipeline near Bismarck have been preparing what they’ve christened Ma’iingan Camp—named after the Ojibwe word for “wolf.”
At any given time, five to 20 people are on the land, building composting toilets, clearing paths, rehabbing an old shed, and networking with the Oceti—the Seven Council Fires of the Lakota. “They’re coming together because this used to be their territory.”
Just like at Standing Rock, the land in question is ceded territory. One of the myths about Standing Rock was that the tribe had no grounds to oppose the pipeline because it didn’t cross their reservation. But reservations are federal land; ceded territory is governed by treaty agreements—it’s where tribes have the most grounds for protest if they believe their treaty rights are not being honored.
Ma’iingan Camp prefers the same term used at Standing Rock—not protesters, but water protectors. “If we were protesting, you’d know it.”
The camp focuses on culture, education, and sustainability, organized in opposition to the relocation and enlargement of Enbridge Line 3, a 1,031-mile oil pipeline from Edmonton, Alberta, to Superior, Wisconsin. Over 300 miles of Line 3 run through Minnesota, passing less than 10 miles from the camp.
Enbridge’s existing Line 3 was built in 1968 at a capacity of 760,000 barrels per day of diluted tar sands, or dilbit. It enters Minnesota’s northwest corner at Neche, North Dakota, and runs to Clearbrook by way of Thief River Falls. From the Clearbrook Terminal, it passes southwest of Bemidji, traverses Cass Lake, bisects the Leech Lake Reservation, drops south near Grand Rapids, and enters Wisconsin south of Cloquet.
By all accounts, the existing Line 3 needs to be replaced. Extensive corrosion and cracking have made the line a catastrophe waiting to happen. In 2008, it was downgraded to a lower pressure and currently transports only 390,000 barrels per day.
After Enbridge’s Line 6B in Michigan burst in 2010, dumping 800,000 gallons of dilbit into a tributary of the Kalamazoo River, Enbridge was court ordered to replace Line 3 by December 31, 2017.
Enbridge officials hope this will “instill a new sense of urgency at all levels of government, from the governor’s office down to the appropriate agencies.” Opponents have accused the company of using the court order to strong-arm the state into rushing the sort of environmental assessment that might prevent another disaster like Kalamazoo, which remains one of the largest inland oil spills in US history.
Ma’iingan Camp’s sister site, Turtle Island (a term for North America in Ojibwe oral history), lies 200 miles west on the White Earth Reservation, within shouting distance of the Clearbrook Terminal, where dilbit from Alberta is routed south on the Koch Brothers’ MinnCan pipeline to a refinery in the Twin Cities, or southeast on Enbridge’s Alberta Clipper to Superior.
The mood in Ma’iingan Camp today is anxious. “Old Man,” as they call him, is late returning and he didn’t bring a companion with him. One of the safety standards at the camp is to always travel in pairs.
Nothing is discussed by telephone or over the Internet—or even in the presence of a smartphone. (I am asked to surrender mine before we sit down to talk, although they may have believed that I would surreptitiously record them and were just being polite about it by removing everybody’s phones.)
As we’re poring over maps, Old Man finally calls to say he’s surrounded by “zhigaagwag”—skunks—an apparent reference to TigerSwan, the private security company hired by Dakota Access, which later came under scrutiny for its paramilitary tactics. The photo of a snarling German Shepard with blood on its snout helped galvanize the Standing Rock protests.
Last February, Enbridge acquired a 27.6 percent interest in the Dakota Access Pipeline. Ma’iingan Camp believes TigerSwan is already in Carlton County, gathering intel and safeguarding staging grounds.
Old Man’s wife begins to cry. Enbridge recently gave a presentation to some grade-schoolers in Duluth, she says, and she was invited to the class on another day to present the other side. One little boy raised his hand and said his daddy works for Enbridge and told him the Indians are trying to take away his job.
“What could I say? I didn’t want to badmouth his father. I told him, ‘Your daddy is working hard to take care of you. I don’t want to take away his job. I just want all of us to have clean water to drink.’”
A murmur of assent goes around the table. But Old Man’s wife is staring off sadly at a point in the distance. “He called us ‘those people.’”
Like Standing Rock, Ma’iingan Camp’s position is that the oil should stay in the ground. Not only does Line 3 pass within three miles of the St. Louis estuary, but the future of energy production lies in renewables. What a cruel irony it would be if that little boy’s father lost his drinking water, only to lose his job, too.
But not all Line 3 opponents take such a hard line. Paul Stolen has been working on pipelines since he was 19, when he started out on the bending crew for Line 3. He became a biologist, working with pipelines until his retirement, first for the Department of Natural Resources in Montana and then in Minnesota.
Stolen is now a technical adviser for Friends of the Headwaters, an environmental organization advocating an alternate route for Line 3. “This pipeline is going to be there for 50 or more years. If you put it in the wrong place, you have to live with that.”
Enbridge’s desired route for the expanded Line 3 is the same until Clearbrook, where it drops south into the White Earth Reservation, makes a hard eastward turn near Park City, through the Badoura and Foothills Forests, zigzags through Aitkin County, turns east near McGregor, crosses into Wisconsin south of Jay Cooke Park, and follows the estuary into Superior.
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“A pipeline is not just a tube in the ground,” says Stolen. “It’s a highly complex industrial petroleum facility...Is LaSalle Lake a good place to put an oil facility? No, it’s not. Would you put an oil refinery in Itasca Park? It’s the same issue.”
Known as SA-04, the alternate route would straddle the eastern Minnesota border, spanning about 250 miles from Wheaton to Montevideo to New Ulm, and exiting into Iowa just south of Albert Lea.
“Almost all of Enbridge’s product goes to Chicago, so we’re advocating a route directly to Chicago. It would be cheaper because it would be shorter...The best place to build a large pipeline is on flat or nearly flat land, with lots of roads and few natural resources present. Oil spills can therefore be detected quickly, don’t move far, and can be accessible for cleanup. This is such an obvious situation that it doesn’t take an [Environmental Impact Statement] to demonstrate it.”
But Friends of the Headwaters had to sue to get an Environmental Impact Statement at all. Because pipelines are a public utility, their permits are handled by the Department of Commerce and the Public Utilities Commission, which use a narrower and less stringent Comparative Environmental Analysis (CEA).
In 2014, the CEA was completed and the Public Utilities Commission granted Enbridge the first of its two needed permits, the Certificate of Need.
Friends of the Headwaters sued on the basis that the Minnesota Environmental Protection Act requires a more probing and transparent Environmental Impact Statement (EIS), because the pipeline “constitutes a major governmental action” with “the potential for significant environmental effects.”
Friends of the Headwaters prevailed in court; the Public Utilities Commission appealed; and the Minnesota Supreme Court upheld the original ruling, revoking the Certificate of Need and ordering the Public Utilities Commission to complete an EIS instead.
(Confusing matters more, these court proceedings were all in regards to Enbridge’s Sandpiper project, which proposed the exact same route from Clearbrook as the Line 3 expansion, except originating in the Bakken oil fields in North Dakota, instead of Alberta.
The Department of Commerce started the EIS, only to have Enbridge abruptly drop the Sandpiper, despite having sunk $800 million into the project, and replace it with the expansion and relocation of Line 3.
The reasons for the switch are open to debate. Enbridge said the Sandpiper “needs to be delayed” because it’s “outside the company’s current five-year planning horizon.” But a change in the project—even one so cosmetic—meant abandoning portions of the assessment that had already been completed, including hundreds of pages of public comments.
The Sandpiper is no longer included in the EIS, even though the company has said they might revive the project later and the EIS is supposed to consider the cumulative effects of future projects.)
“None of these pipelines are in good places to leak,” says Stolen. “And they all leak.”
The primary cause of ruptures is third-party damage, “somebody doing something stupid with a backhoe.” (Sabotage accounts for virtually no ruptures, and Ma’iingan Camp wants to keep it that way, urging opponents not to damage pipeline equipment.)
But the realities of putting steel in the ground and the methods of leak detection across thousands of miles of line make spills inevitable. Electric currents caused by power lines, solar flares, and even the Earth’s magnetic field weaken the steel and cause an acidic reaction in the soil that eats away at the line.
Correction: The original version of this story misidentified the cause of the 2010 spill at Kalamazoo as natural weakening of the steel caused by electricity producing an acidic reaction in the soil. According to an investigation by the National Transportation Safety Board, “the probable cause of the pipeline rupture was corrosion fatigue cracks that grew and coalesced from crack and corrosion defects under disbonded polyethylene tape coating, producing a substantial crude oil release that went undetected by the control center for over 17 hours. The rupture and prolonged release were made possible by pervasive organizational failures at Enbridge that included the following:
•Deficient integrity management procedures, which allowed well-documented crack defects in corroded areas to propagate until the pipeline failed.
•Inadequate training of control center personnel, which allowed the rupture to remain undetected for 17 hours and through two startups of the pipeline.
•Insufficient public awareness and education, which allowed the release to continue for nearly 14 hours after the first notification of an odor to local emergency response agencies.”
We apologize for the error.
Groundwater corrodes the steel over time, and the weight of the oil flowing through the pipe causes the line to move in the ground, pushing it up against rocks that cause further damage.
“And the way you detect a leak is a drop in the line pressure. Before a drop in pressure is detectable, 760 barrels of oil, at 42 gallons per barrel, will have leaked. So, a lot of oil.” Quite often, a member of the public will discover a leak before the line pressure drops enough to alert the company.
There have been over 100 pipeline leaks in the United States alone, just since 2000 and only counting liquid petroleum pipelines. But in Stolen’s opinion, not all leaks are created equal. “For every mile of line, the chances of that particular mile leaking isn’t high. But even if the risks are low, if the consequences are high, you need to take a look at that.”
A dilbit spill in wetlands—like those Line 3 will cross all over Minnesota—present unique dangers. The oil will initially float, off-gassing compounds hazardous to human health and risking an explosion. As the oil sinks, it becomes impossible to clean up. Hence, Stolen’s rule-of-thumb that pipelines should be built in areas that are flat, dry, and accessible.
The alternate SA-04 route meets these criteria, but faces an uphill battle due to Minnesota’s history of building new pipelines within existing pipeline corridors. “If they put it in a different place, Superior would have to suck up some additional costs because they’ve already built their tanks...The simple truth is Enbridge wants the route through Superior, and they expect to get what they want.”
But do they want it enough to potentially break the law? Ma’iingan Camp released several hundred photographs of what they claim are Line 3 staging activity in Carlton County.
Enbridge spokeswoman Jennifer Smith says staging has begun in Wisconsin, from the border to the Superior Terminal, and some staging remains in place from the jettisoned Sandpiper, “But nothing will start in Minnesota until permits have been issued.”
While Smith has not seen the photographs, she says equipment has been moving from many of the places depicted in them, such as the railyard in Carlton County and the BendTec facility in Duluth.
She acknowledges that this reflects an assumption that Enbridge’s preferred route will be permitted, but the company was willing to take that chance since they believe their desired route is the best option. “SA-04 will never be built. There’s no commercial support for it. We don’t own the oil, so we need to get it to the terminals [in Clearbrook and Superior]. We have contracts with those shippers...[In addition], SA-04 focuses on Minnesota, and doesn’t take into account the other surrounding states.”
As far as safety, Smith says the company conducted spill modeling. The most likely scenario occurred only once out of 84,000 times the model was run. The second most likely spill scenario never occurred at all.
“Bullshit,” says Stolen. “Those are just mathematical models. Garbage in, garbage out...Their position is engraved in stone that it’s a safe pipeline, and they’re not going to back down from that”—even though the company claimed as recently as 2013 that the existing Line 3 was perfectly safe, only to reverse that position once they wanted to put the line on a different route.
“They’re crying wolf. The day before they announced [the Line 3 expansion], they were 100 percent behind Sandpiper. The next day, it was 100 percent dropped, and they were blaming [environmentalists] for delaying the replacement of Line 3.”
When asked if Enbridge has already begun staging, Public Utilities Commission spokesman Dan Wolf pauses for a long time. “State law prohibits an applicant from proceeding with construction activities until they have a Route Permit [the second of the required permits]. If the applicant wishes to purchase property or equipment, they may do so at their own risk.”
Whether or not staging constitutes construction activity would be determined by the Commission in the event that someone filed a complaint. No complaints have been received about Line 3, but the Commission has previously determined, in the case of a wind farm, that staging constitutes illegal construction activity.
This prompts the only outburst in Stolen’s otherwise calm demeanor. “Why should they wait for the public to complain? Government agencies shouldn’t be this passive. The Public Utilities Commission regulates these pipelines, and they’re completely out to lunch!”
After Friends of the Headwaters prevailed in court, the Department of Commerce and the Public Utilities Commission found themselves, for the first time ever, performing a byzantine environmental review, complicated by a dizzying alphabet soup of acronyms.
No one at either agency was able to explain the process. The Department of Commerce—inexplicably—denied responsibility for the EIS and referred questions about it to the Public Utilities Commission.
“The dirty truth,” says Stolen, “is it makes the state agencies’ heads spin, too.”
Enbridge refiled its permit applications in April 2015. The Public Utilities Commission sent the Certificate of Need application to the Office of Administrative Hearings. In August, the Department of Commerce conducted 15 public meetings as part of the “scoping process,” essentially the information-gathering phase of an EIS.
After Enbridge swapped the Sandpiper for the Line 3 expansion, the Public Utilities Commission authorized a joint EIS for the Certificate of Need and the Route Permit, and referred the combined docket to the Office of Administrative Hearings.
In April 2016, the Department of Commerce issued a Draft Scoping Decision, followed by a 45-day public comment period. In November, the Public Utilities Commission approved the Scoping Decision, and added almost 30 alternate routes proposed during public comment—including SA-04. The final Scoping Decision was completed last December.
But then something strange happened—even by the standards of this already-strange EIS process. On May 15, the agencies released the Draft Environmental Impact Statement, followed by a 56-day public comment period. More than 2,000 comments were submitted, including significant concerns from the Department of Natural Resources and the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency. The latter actually favored SA-04.
Normally, a Draft Environmental Impact Statement includes a response to all substantive public comments—but this one doesn’t.
The Final Environmental Impact Statement will be released on August 21 [this was true at the time the Zenith went to press, but the FEIS was actually released sooner than expected on August 17], followed by a public comment period until September 25, and then a ruling by the Office of Administrative Hearings, with a final decision expected in early December.
“So they haven’t responded in the DEIS to more than 2,000 public comments,” says Stolen, “and they’re coming out with the FEIS before they’ll even be able to. There isn’t time...What that means is they decided to come out with the FEIS before they had even looked at the comments. This is completely against normal procedure.”
But Stolen was in for more dismaying news. On August 14, the Public Utilities Commission appointed Administrative Law Judge Eric Lipman to rule on the FEIS. Lipman previously heard the application for the Sandpiper. “He ignored Friends of the Headwaters’ testimony and has shown extreme bias in favor of Enbridge...The process is messed up, and Enbridge is very aggressively influencing it.
“Minnesota prides itself on good governance, but this is an exception...I grew up here. I love Minnesota. But with this project, we’re hypocrites, as bad as [the worst states in the country] on environmental issues.”