Line 3 penalties are a small step toward accountability

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Matt Doll, Minnesota Environmental Partnership

Last week, Attorney General Keith Ellison and agency and tribal leaders announced $7 million in penalties against Enbridge, the builder of the Line 3 tar sands oil pipeline, for its breach of vulnerable aquifers in Northern Minnesota during construction.

The Attorney General also charged the company with a misdemeanor for the release of water from the aquifer near Clearbrook, though this charge will likely be dropped after Enbridge pays additional money for wetland restoration. In total, Enbridge will end up paying roughly $11 million for the damage it caused during the Line 3 construction process, although some of this may be returned to Enbridge if not used for restoration work.

These aquifer breaches have caused serious damage to the surrounding ecosystems. The aquifers feed valuable wetlands called calcareous fens, which can dry up without a steady source of groundwater. After Enbridge essentially burst the aquifers open, it let them gush for months without being restored – and for quite some time, without the DNR’s knowledge.

While the LaSalle aquifer breach appears to have stopped, two other breaches continue to modestly flow, still causing the aquifers to lose valuable groundwater.

MEP has extensively covered these aquifer breaches in our blog and in two webinars last September and in January. We and the people of Minnesota owe a great debt to the Indigenous water protectors and geologists who drew attention to these harms. It’s through their efforts that any measure of accountability has moved forward.

When MEP learned about the breaches, which violated Enbridge’s permits to construct and operate the pipeline, we wrote to Governor Walz along with our allies to ask that he suspend those permits. We’ve been on record opposing the pipeline on climate and environmental justice grounds for years, but in this case, we asked only for a suspension so that the violations could be fixed and fully investigated. Unfortunately, no suspension was forthcoming.

While we appreciate the efforts of the Attorney General, the state, and tribes to secure these penalties, the amount that Enbridge will have to pay toward environmental efforts and restitution is frustratingly small. $11 million is a useful amount for ecological restoration, but it’s small potatoes to a company like Enbridge, which made more than $5 billion in net income in 2021.

In part, the small scope of these penalties are a product of state law. Under rules set decades ago to encourage pipeline construction, companies like Enbridge are assumed to be good-faith operators, deserving of all the time and leniency in the world as long as they “fix” their mistakes. Enbridge’s old Line 3 caused the largest inland oil spill in U.S. history in 1991 – a spill that could have threatened vast swaths of the Mississippi River and poisoned the drinking water of millions downstream. In response, the company shut off the pipeline an hour after it was notified, paid for the cleanup, and otherwise went about its business as usual. Of course, they would later use the spill that happened on their watch as justification to build their new tar sands pipeline.

In an era of climate change and rapid ecological destruction, the laws written with oil companies’ interests at heart aren’t working now for Minnesotans. When the Department of Commerce said that the new Line 3 was not needed and should not be built, the Public Utilities Commission rubber-stamped its certificate of need anyway. When several Anishinaabe tribes and thousands of Minnesotans said that Enbridge’s construction permits would result in major harm to Minnesota and its water resources, state agencies approved them. When it was clear that construction was damaging vulnerable ecosystems beyond the point of restoration, Enbridge was given a slap on the wrist.

Minnesota needs new laws and a new paradigm for looking at polluting projects like Line 3 that holds corporations accountable and does not put profit over people. Things like clean water, native species, a livable climate, and Indigenous treaty rights to hunt and gather resources in Northern Minnesota should not be treated as tradeoffs to be sacrificed for a foreign pipeline company’s gain. How much better off would our state be if our laws treated Minnesota’s future, not fossil fuels, as our number one priority?

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