More aquifers were breached by Line 3 than previously thought

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Matt Doll, Minnesota Environmental Partnership

Earlier this week, the Minnesota DNR reported that Canadian oil company Enbridge’s Line 3 oil pipeline has inflicted even more damage than Minnesotans realized on Minnesota’s waters. In addition to the January 2021 aquifer breach near Clearbrook and the spills of drilling fluid that MEP has extensively written on, construction caused an even larger breach last year near Fond du Lac tribal territory and another breach in Hubbard County.

MEP has hosted webinars, one last September and one in January, on the Clearbrook aquifer breach and the drilling fluid spills, in which scientists and Indigenous advocates explained how problems during Line 3’s construction have harmed Minnesota water resources. At the time, we knew that the breach was causing massive volumes of water to drain from the aquifer and onto the landscape. The extent of the damage from that breach may never be fully known, but it has likely permanently damaged a vulnerable type of wetland ecosystem called a calcareous fen. This breach represented a violation of Enbridge’s permits.

The new report from the DNR indicates that theother Fond du Lac breach was even more extensive, releasing hundreds of millions of gallons of groundwater across the landscape. Some of that water has likely returned to the aquifer, but again, the effects of the disruption are still not fully known.

One of the most disturbing aspects of these breaches has been how little and how late the public has been informed. Enbridge didn’t inform the DNR about the Clearbrook breach for five months as water was flowing out of the ground into its trenches. The DNR learned about the breaches in Hubbard County and near Fond du Lac several days after each one was detected around the beginning of August and early September, respectively. But the public and groups like MEP are only just learning basic information such as where they occured this week. Similarly, public awareness of the drilling liquid spills only came after Indigenous water monitors shared photos of the waterways affected.

It’s not as if MEP or water protectors have the power to turn the pipeline off or penalize Enbridge. That authority belongs to the DNR, which has dealt Enbridge a fine the company can easily afford and refused to revoke or suspend permits in the face of these violations. This is deeply disappointing. 

MEP has opposed the new Line 3 pipeline for years on multiple grounds. Each year of its operation, the burning of the oil it transmits to markets elsewhere will generate more emissions than the entirety of Minnesota’s economy combined. As with all fossil fuel infrastructure, there must be a plan to shut down Line 3 and move toward sustainable energy alternatives in order to stave off climate change.

Each of the numerous water crossings of the pipeline risks a possible spill of tar sands oil, threatening ecologically vulnerable waters and communities along its route, as happened when an Enbridge pipeline in Minnesota caused the largest inland oil spill in U.S. history. It threatenswild rice, the way of life and other resources guaranteed to Minnesota’s Anishinaabe tribes by treaty. And as we’ve seen, its construction has likely caused irreparable damage to groundwater resources in multiple locations.

What can be done?

In Minnesota, some legislators are proposing to increase penalties on companies that violate their permits in ways that harm Minnesota waters and people. Representative Jamie Becker-Finn and Senator Mary Kunesh have authored a bill that would allow higher fines for these types of breaches and for keeping them secret. Encouragingly, the DNR supports these changes.

Meanwhile, another Enbridge pipeline project is taking shape to our east. Enbridge has proposed to reroute and expand a section of its Line 5 tar sands pipeline that runs through Wisconsin and Michigan through nearly 180 waterways that run into the Bad River Reservation, an Anishinaabe community on the Wisconsin coast of Lake Superior. The Bad River Tribe strongly opposes this reroute and expansion and are demanding the protection of drinking water aquifers, Lake Superior fisheries, family farms, the Apostle Islands, and the Great Lakes. The company intends to use the same failed drilling techniques in Wisconsin that it used in Minnesota, threatening more breaches and long-term damage to the Lake Superior watershed and livelihood of Indigenous people and resources.

Just as Enbridge has acted in Minnesota and in its battle with the State of Michigan over the Straits of Mackinac, the company intends to move forward, confident that its money and influence will continue to shield the company from accountability. Minnesota, Wisconsin, and the states struggling with the consequences and undue influence of pipeline companies should learn from these disasters and choose a different path forward.

What you can do: Contact the Wisconsin DNR using Honor the Earth’s action alert and warn them against allowing Enbridge’s reroute and expansion – they should learn from the experience of Minnesota that this plan will not keep water or people safe.

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