A regulatory agency’s decision to take a closer look at a water permit for a controversial pipeline project in northern Minnesota came on the heels of an unusually active public-comment period.
The Minnesota Pollution Control Agency (MPCA) this week agreed to review concerns about its permit for the Enbridge Line 3 project after four groups – three consisting of environmental organizations and one comprising two Native American bands – and 16 individuals petitioned the agency for a “contested case hearing.”
Besides the petitions, the agency fielded more than 10,000 comments – either online, through the mail or during three “telephone town halls” – during a public comment period that ran from March 2 to April 10. That’s 10 times the number of comments the agency received after it granted a so-called “401” water permit for another hotly contested project: the proposed PolyMet Mining copper-nickel mine on the Iron Range.
“It’s a big number, especially for a ‘401 permit,’” said Melissa Kuskie, the manager of the MPCA’s Certifications and Environmental Review and Rules Section. The agency is still working through some of the public comments, she said. Many of the messages were form letters put together by the Sierra Club and other groups.
Enbridge wants to build a $2.6 billion oil pipeline that would replace an aging pipeline known as Line 3, which cuts across northern Minnesota. Earlier this year, the state’s Public Utilities Commission signed off on the project.
MPCA Commissioner Laura Bishop authorized the hearing in a 20-page document summarizing the petitions that was released Wednesday. In a press release, she said the agency was committed to ensuring that its “401” certification provides “robust and comprehensive protections” of Minnesota’s waters.
The four groups that filed petitions included Friends of the Headwaters, joined by the Sierra Club, Honor the Earth and other groups; the Red Lake Band of Chippewa Indians and the White Earth Band of Ojibwe; the Minnesota Environmental Partnership, on behalf of 29 organizations; and the Whitefish Area Property Owners Association.
The five questions the agency agreed to consider – all posed in the Friends of the Headwaters petition – deal with the pipeline’s construction at water crossings and through wetlands. The queries include, “Does Enbridge’s proposed use of trench methods for stream crossings have temporary or permanent impacts on water quality parameters of concern?” and “Have Enbridge and the MPCA undercounted the full acreage of wetlands that are physically altered by trenching?”
The Minnesota Environmental Partnership posed a question about the pipeline’s potential impact on the climate, which the MPCA dismissed. Steve Morse, the executive director of the group, said that decision reflects the narrow scope of the MPCA’s permit review. “We’re glad that the agency will be holding a contested case hearing,” he said. “Nonetheless, we remain really concerned about how it will address the climate impacts of the project.”
Honor the Earth’s executive director, Winona LaDuke, applauded the MPCA’s decision to hold the hearing but criticized the agency for dismissing its questions about the impact of oil spills on wild rice and Lake Superior.
The hearing, before an administrative law judge, is expected to be held this summer. Alexandra Klass, a University of Minnesota law professor, said such hearings are similar to trials, with experts providing information and testimony that could potentially help the MPCA “come to a more informed and better decision.”
The Sierra Club lauded the decision, saying it hoped it would ultimately derail the project. “This tar sands pipeline would be a disaster for our waterways and communities, and we are confident that if the MPCA truly listens to public input and follows the science, it will be clear that the only responsible course of action is for the PCA to reject this pipeline permit once and for all,” the organization said in a press release.
Enbridge said it would continue to work with other permitting agencies with hopes of starting construction before the end of 2020. Vern Yu, the president of the company’s liquid pipelines, said in a prepared statement that the hearing could actually improve the MPCA’s “decision record.”
Jobs for Minnesotans, a coalition founded by the Minnesota Chamber of Commerce and the Minnesota Building and Construction Trades Council, criticized the decision, calling Line 3 “the most thoroughly reviewed project in Minnesota’s history.”
Meanwhile, LIUNA Minnesota and North Dakota, a group of labor unions, said the decision to hold the hearing “needlessly delays a project with proven environmental and economic benefits.”
“Northern Minnesota’s economy struggled before COVID, and today faces a full-scale depression with mines shutting down and thousands out of work, including many of our members,” said Joel Smith, LIUNA’s president and business manager.