Debate over Enbridge Energy’s Line 3 oil pipeline floats quietly through the St. Croix River Valley

On Wednesday, Aug. 26, a small group of paddlers gathered on the shores of the St. Croix River at the St. Croix Boom Site landing. Though the sun was warm overhead, wind whipped off of the water, causing the homemade flags on the backs of their canoes to billow and unfurl like sails. “Protect Nibi. Honor treaties. Stop Line 3,” they read.

My son and I stood and watched quietly as the group gathered for a short ceremony before launching onto the river. “While you are out on the water, hold the intention that all waters are restored to their true splendor. All mountains. All children. All nature,” said Sierra Erickson, one of the coordinators for the day. After singing a song, a woman in the group sent my son to collect water from the St. Croix. They added it to water from the headwaters of the Mississippi, blessed it, and then climbed into kayaks and canoes and continued down the river.

Five years ago, Canadian-based Enbridge Energy filed applications with the Minnesota Public Utilities Commission to replace a portion of their existing crude oil pipeline in northern Minnesota. Line 3 travels 1097 miles from Edmonton, Alberta to Superior, Wisconsin and was originally constructed in the 1960’s. Currently, the pipeline is corroding and operating at only 51% capacity due to safety issues. Enbridge hopes to replace the old 34-inch pipe with a new 36-inch pipe and also construct a new route for the pipeline approximately 30-miles south of the existing route.

In short, the proposal has been controversial.

In 2017, the MN Public Utilities Commission held 16 public hearings in eight different counties to discuss the certificate of need and route permit applications. After that, there were a series of public hearings and agency review periods. On June 3, 2019, the Minnesota Court of Appeals found the revised final Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) inadequate because it did not address the potential impact of an oil spill into the Lake Superior watershed. The Public Utilities Commission ultimately approved the proposed new route on May 1, 2020.

The proposed new route for Line 3 would be located approximately 30 miles south of the current route. Map from Minnesota Public Utilities Commission.

Meanwhile, the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency (MPCA) is responsible for reviewing permits and certifications related to the project for air quality, water quality, construction stormwater, and industrial wastewater. During this year’s public comment period for water quality certification, the MPCA received 9,723 written comments and 399 oral comments from individuals, government agencies, Tribal Nations, environmental groups, and businesses.

Most recently, on Aug. 24, the MPCA held a contested case hearing in response to petitions submitted by the Red Lake Band of Chippewa Indians and White Earth Band of Ojibwe; Friends of the Headwaters, Sierra Club, and Honor the Earth; Minnesota Environmental Partnership on behalf of 29 organizations; and the Whitefish Area Property Owners Association. A final decision will be made on Nov. 14, 2020.

Health Professionals for a Healthy Climate stand outside the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency offices on Aug. 29, 2020. Original video by Ellen Zoey Holden Hadley, shared by Relay for Our Water.

Enbridge argues that the new pipeline is needed to meet demand and ensure continued transport of crude oil to Minnesota, Eastern Canada and the Gulf Coast. The company also projects that it will create 8,600 temporary jobs during the two-year construction period, 6,500 of which will be local.

Tribal Nations and environmental groups worry that construction of the new pipeline route will harm wetlands, wild rice beds, remote lakes, and streams that flow to the Mississippi River and note that regional fisheries in the area support 49,000 jobs and generate $7.2 billion annually. They also believe that the project will violate historic treaties, designed to protect Anishinaabe hunting, fishing, and foraging territory.

Amidst this backdrop, a group of Indigenous and non-Indigenous people organized this year’s Relay for our Water. Since Aug. 5, relay participants have been transporting water from the Mississippi River headwaters through the state. The water has been carried on foot, across water, and by bike, passing from hand to hand as it travels. After moving down the St Croix River from St. Croix State Park to Stillwater last week, relay members biked onward to St. Paul to visit the MPCA and State Capitol. The relay will eventually return to the Mississippi headwaters later this fall, as wild rice harvest season comes to a close.

The goal of the event is to raise awareness about the Line 3 pipeline project, advocate for protection of water, and honor Tribal treaties. At the end of last week’s sending off ceremony on the shores of the St. Croix, a woman named Heidi gave my son a Labradorite necklace that was given to her by someone long ago and “prayed over by many people.” She said that she was passing it to him – the next generation – to remember to build relationships with one another and the earth. Then, the group climbed into their vessels with flags flying high and paddled away into the wind.

Mississippi River in northern Minnesota