Note: The Land Stewardship Project’s current long-range plan outlines why we cannot have a sustainable society while we rely on a system focused on extractive fossil fuels. In the plan, LSP promises to “advance solutions to the climate crisis by innovating and promoting resilient, soil-building farming systems and moving our society away from a reliance on fossil fuels.” It has become clear that the Enbridge Line 3 tar sands oil pipeline in northern Minnesota does not advance solutions to the climate crisis and deepens our dependence on fossil fuels. And as this blog by LSP member John King documents, it is also a major threat to the region’s water quality and environmental health in general. For more information on this issue, see the bottom of this blog.
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Everybody should be happy. The new Line 3 pipeline, traveling 337 miles through Minnesota and the biggest infrastructure project in state history, has been pushing Canadian tar sand oil through the region for over a year. At full capacity of 760,000 barrels a day, Enbridge, the Canadian builder and owner, would be raking in over $43 million a day. Over 200 law enforcement organizations collaborating with Enbridge for pipeline security divided up $8.5 million in payouts. That money was spent on body armor, surveillance drones, tear gas, batons, crowd control training, and wages. A dozen northern counties have pocketed $30 million in property tax revenue this year. That figure is expected to increase to $50 million next year.
Enbridge is especially happy. It got to do this to Minnesota with minimal regulatory oversight and a pittance in environmental fines. But above all, it got its pipeline, and without the pipeline the poor quality tar sands oil flowing through it would not have yielded much profit.
But everybody is not happy. Let’s put aside where this oil came from and how it was made. Let’s not talk about the thousands of acres of Alberta boreal forest ripped up and bulldozed to the side to get at the oil-bearing sand. Let’s not talk about the 100-square-miles of sludge ponds leaching toxic chemicals into Alberta’s northern waterways. Let’s ignore the bargain basement quality of this tar sands oil that nobody really wants, and which uses almost as much energy to mine as it yields as a fuel. Let’s turn our backs on Alberta’s indigenous people who have used this land sustainably for thousands of years and which is now a foul-smelling strip mine. Let’s just talk about Minnesota.
A Legacy of Breaches
La Salle Creek is just a few miles north of Lake Itasca and its namesake state park. It is a tributary stream for the Mississippi River near its origin and borders the Headwaters State Forest. Along the way it flows into La Salle Lake, one of the deepest and most pristine lakes in the state. The lake hosts a State Recreation Area and a nearby Scenic and Natural Area. This water-rich ecosystem features a complex interchange between surface and subsurface water that sustains and enriches rare plants, endangered orchids, trout, old-growth cedar forests and an abundance of water-dependent creatures that require the cold, clear water of La Salle Creek. The area has been flagged by the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources because of its unique and abundant biodiversity. It is a Minnesota gem, not much visited because of the more famous nearby state park.
In 2014, when the pipeline was being planned, expert witnesses warned that “severe damage was likely in the La Salle Creek corridor” if pipeline construction were to occur there. “This area could well become a case study on where not to build a pipeline,” environmental expert Paul Stolen testified. Enbridge countered: “None of the data that were collected suggest that a pipeline will adversely impact hydrologic conditions during and after construction.” State regulators, including the DNR and the Public Utilities Commissioners who had no pipeline experts of their own and were wishing the project to move forward with all due haste, issued their permits. Pipeline boosters cheered, saying that this was the most studied and well planned pipeline project in state history.
In August 2021, as they were trenching for the pipeline in the La Salle Creek corridor, Enbridge encountered an unanticipated amount of waterlogged peat and mud. To counter the problem, construction crews drove sheet pilings deep into the ground, well below the 20-foot maximum depth allowed by their permit. The sheet pilings tore through the clay cap of the area’s aquifer, releasing what is estimated to be nearly 10 million gallons of water into the creek.
The “fix,” the remediation plan devised by Enbridge engineers, was a solid concrete wall 350-feet-long and extending 20 feet into the ground. This, they hoped, would stem the flow and save the creek and its wetlands. It did reduce the flow, but in at least a dozen places aquifer water continues to rise to the surface. This “new” water will change the chemistry of the creek and the “fix” will permanently alter the aquatic balance of the La Salle corridor ecosystem by interrupting the natural flow of the surface and subsurface water.
The La Salle Creek tragedy is all the more so because, only months earlier, in January of 2021, Enbridge drove sheet pilings through an aquifer while trenching their pipeline near their own storage terminal at Clearbrook in Clearwater County. This happened when Enbridge was “surprised” by an already existing line in their path. Again driving pilings below their permitted depth, the company released over 50 million gallons of aquifer water into the surrounding landscape, endangering a calcareous fen, a type of wetland hosting rare and endangered species of plants that could be destroyed by a loss of aquifer pressure.
It was not until four months later, in the summer of 2021, that state regulators learned of the breach from independent volunteer monitors. Enbridge never revealed on their own the damage done at Clearbrook. By the summer of 2022, a year-and-a-half after the permit violations, a brute force “fix” similar to the one at La Salle Creek had failed to completely stop the flow.
Thirty days after the La Salle breach and adjacent to reservation land at Fond du Lac, Enbridge drove pilings into the wetlands and again breached the underlying aquifer. This aquifer, it turns out, is an artesian aquifer under pressure. It literally burst from the ground. In documents shown to regulators, the company admitted being unfamiliar with the complex hydrology of the area. The builder of the “most thoroughly studied” pipeline in state history did not know about the water geology at Fond du Lac before driving pilings 30 feet into the ground. Over 200 million gallons flowed out into the wetland forest threatening Deadfish Lake, an important ricing lake for the Fond du Lac Band.
Enbridge’s only accountability to Minnesota for its environmental damage and permit violations was a misdemeanor fine for taking water without a permit and a requirement to do extra environmental work in the pipeline corridor. Independent environmental monitors using thermal imaging and aerial drones have identified at least 45 unreported places where subsurface aquifers continue releasing water to the surface as a result of construction activity. A year after completion, miles of silt fence and construction material remain in the corridor in violation of the permit.
Minnesota has become a mule for Canadian oil cartels and has sold a piece of itself to a foreign pipeline company that broke its promises and has not been held accountable for the damage it did. Our state regulators failed us, our land, and our water by permitting this project before it was adequately studied.
A petition to hold Enbridge accountable can be found here: Demand Federal Agencies Hold Enbridge Accountable for Line 3 Destruction.
U.S. Minnesota Representative Betty McCollum is calling for a federal investigation of Enbridge violations and Minnesota’s regulatory failures. Her letter to the U.S. Corps of Engineers and the Environmental Protection Agency administrator can be found here.
• Waadookawaad Amikwag/Those Who Help Beaver is an independent citizen science group powered entirely by volunteers and led by Indigenous values. A grassroots group of tribal members and citizen scientists came together in late 2021 as damages from the Enbridge Line 3 construction continued to emerge along the pipeline corridor.
• Minnesota Public Utilities Commission: MPUC Docket No. PL-6668/CN-13-473 OAH Docket NO. OAH-8-2500-31260; Direct Testimony of Paul Stolen (Friends of the Headwaters), November 19, 2014
John King is a long-time Land Stewardship Project member and is on board of the Land Stewardship Action Fund. He lives with his wife, Ruth, on 40 acres of mixed forest/pasture land in west-central Minnesota. They are looking for someone to share the land. King can be contacted at email@example.com.