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Enbridge Line 3: The threat of spillage is as real as its precedent

A major spill could devastate water supplies, including wild rice beds, flooding those with industrial chemicals. How much of the enormous cleanup Minnesota would be left footing the bill for is unknown.

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Rocky Wagner
Several weeks ago MinnPost published an article to inform its readers about the Enbridge Line 3 tar sands crude oil pipeline (“Where the Enbridge Line 3 pipeline project stands, and where it goes from here,”) but the article, while full of good information, left a lot out. MinnPost’s Line 3 piece reasonably skirts detailed discussion of the environmental implications of fossil fuel use to zoom in on the project itself, but it didn’t include some central facts I’d like to provide about the line’s history, its legal standing in regard to tribal rights, and facts surrounding its approval process.

On potential acute environmental impacts, tar sands crude oil spills, the article limits itself to this: “Environmentalists opposed to the route worry a spill could pollute the Mississippi River’s headwaters or other nearby lakes and waterways in the region.” While undeniably true, it’s a fairly bland statement. We are worried not because we are inclined to worry, but because the threat of spillage is as real as its precedent.

Residents of Argyle and Grand Rapids, Minnesota, might wonder why no mention is made of the fact that the two largest inland oil spills in U.S. history occurred here in Minnesota, or that both were resultant of failures in Enbridge pipes, or that pipe failures were both failures of the same pipe, or that this pipe was the Enbridge Line 3.

Enbridge is offering to protect us from itself

Along these lines, no one should get caught in Enbridge’s indirectly referenced position that this is about public safety. No one wants the existing Line 3 to spill, and Enbridge is offering to protect us from itself, and only in exchange for the go-ahead on a massively lucrative project. Enbridge is already legally responsible for ensuring safe pipeline operation. It should do this via line repairs, a true replacement pipeline, or shut it down. The public should not be held hostage over the need for repairs to give Enbridge a new line, with major new capacity.

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Minnesota doesn’t even need this oil — per the state Department of Commerce (DOC). The DOC was the body tasked by Gov. Mark Dayton with this project’s Environmental Impact Statement, the detailed, several-hundred-page study of environmental, economic, and community impacts. The opinion of the DOC is that Enbridge hasn’t justified that a pipeline is needed.

In another branch of government, Administrative Law Judge Ann O’Reilly, ruling on this project, is referenced in the original article as having proposed another route, but no mention is made of her opinion on Line 3’s current route. Judge O’Reilly concurred that the PUC should not approve Enbridge’s Line 3 plan, agreeing that the project’s costs outweighed the benefits.

Impossible to completely clean up

The newer tar sands crude is heavy and sinks. It’s impossible to completely clean up. The list of dilutenting chemicals that make it possible for the crude to flow through pipelines, and the company’s insurance policy itself, are both kept from the public as “trade secrets.” A major spill could devastate water supplies, including wild rice beds, a grain sacred to the Anishinaabe, flooding those with literally secret industrial chemicals. How much of the enormous cleanup Minnesota would be left footing the bill for is unknown.

Then there are First Nations treaty rights. This often overlooked point is significant, both morally and because this is potentially the strongest legal argument that could block the pipeline. The Anishinaabe have off-reservation treaty rights to hunt, fish and gather on lands they ceded to the U.S. government – including the lands the new Line 3 would cross. Case law — Minnesota v. Mille Lacs Band of Chippewa Indians (1999) — supports the Anishinaabe position.

Space could have been allowed for a local or tribal counterpoint to the Enbridge statement claiming affected communities and tribes were “carefully consulted.”

Of 72,000 comments garnered by the Public Utilities Commission’s online request for public testimony, 68,000, or an overwhelming 94 percent, were opposed. Sierra Club, for the above reasons, stands with the majority of Minnesotans in opposition to the dangerous and unnecessary project, which remains on track for construction in the new year.

While it’s completely understandable for these final issues to be omitted from an impartial article about the status of a project’s approval and construction, any consideration of this pipeline by citizens should include knowledge of the actual economic harm done to Canada’s boom-and-bust tar sands communities, the criminal upstream effects of tar sands extraction on the public health in those extraction communities, and the urgent imperative to begin moving our society away from use of fossil fuels that the global community faces if we hope to avoid the target of our current trajectory: droughts, famines, larger wildfires, disappearing islands, disappearing species, decreased global access to potable water, and increasingly common extreme weather events.

Rocky Wagner is a member of the Beyond Oil and Tar Sands Committee of the Sierra Club’s North Star Chapter.

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