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Line 3 spills reveal poor oversight

Allowing Enbridge to police itself is not working. Our state agencies need to improve oversight and enforcement of Enbridge’s permits.

volunteers in river willow working on cleanup
Volunteers work to clean the Willow River after a spill during Line 3 construction.
Photo by Shanai Matteson

Various media outlets recently reported Enbridge’s spill of drilling fluid into the Willow River during Line 3 construction. The stories missed a troubling aspect of the July 6 event: Water protectors themselves discovered the spill early that morning and witnessed no direct response for hours.

photo of article author
Melissa Lorentz
Video footage shows what they encountered as they waded through the riverbed. A dark, muddy plume can be seen in the water as observers note that the polluted area feels much warmer than its surroundings. They see a spill kit on shore and a boom partway across the channel downstream, but no people in sight nor containment directly around the plume. No one from the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency (MPCA) or Minnesota Department of Natural Resources (DNR) — the agencies tasked with protecting our state’s lands and waters. And no one from Enbridge.

By 9:30 a.m., citizens reported the spill. It was unclear whether state agencies already knew.

Then water protectors waited. Law enforcement arrived. A local sheriff said that the discharge had been there since at least the day before. Yet the spill remained uncontained.

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Finally, hours later, workers finally started to manage the plume. Cleanup continued for days.

Those who watch Line 3 closely were not surprised by the accident, nor the sluggish response. This project traverses a complex landscape. There is little data on the hydrology and geology of the area, which is rich in wetlands, sensitive ecosystems, and rapidly changing soil conditions. In a contested case hearing on Line 3’s water permits, geologist Laura Triplett testified that it was irresponsible to build a pipeline through this area without spending at least one year studying these intricate systems.

Rather than gathering that data, the state granted Enbridge permits with malleable requirements to accommodate conditions that may arise during construction.

This raises an important question: Who is making the on-the-ground decisions crucial to avoiding accidents? The permits themselves show that our state agencies are generally not onsite. Rather, important decision-making is left to Enbridge’s own environmental inspectors, along with “independent environmental monitors” who report to the state agencies but are paid for — and selected — by Enbridge, albeit subject to agency approval.

And it appears that Enbridge has not always listened to these monitors. This spring, multiple spills were reported to the MPCA when stormwater containments failed. The MPCA has declined to release details, citing a continuing investigation. Documents that apparently pre-date the investigation state that Enbridge repeatedly violated permit conditions and failed to address monitors’ concerns.

Still the DNR and MPCA granted an unprecedented permit amendment in June, allowing Enbridge to temporarily withdraw (and later discharge) 10 times more groundwater than originally requested for trench dewatering. Enbridge must dewater soggy construction trenches to proceed through the landscape, and it vastly underestimated the amount of water it would encounter. This permit change shows a serious misunderstanding of the route’s hydrology. Yet, the conditions in the amended permits largely defer to Enbridge’s assessment of environmental hazards.

Allowing Enbridge to police itself is not working. Our state agencies need to improve oversight and enforcement of Enbridge’s permits. They can — and should — suspend or revoke permits when a company repeatedly fails to address violations. Enbridge’s inability to protect our precious waters from drilling fluid and stormwater does not bode well for its ability to protect us from an oil spill.

In the meantime, Minnesotans rightfully call for more transparency. The public would know nothing about the Willow River spill if water protectors had not visited the site. How many other accidents have occurred? How long will we wait to find out, and at what cost?

Melissa Lorentz is a staff attorney at the Minnesota Center for Environmental Advocacy.

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