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It was a clear and sunny day in McGregor, MN on Tuesday, August 25. Several dozen people had congregated at the McGregor high school for a Public Utilities Commission (PUC) community meeting dealing with a stretch of pipeline called Line 3 that is controlled by the energy company Enbridge. The pipe line is 50 years old and the company wishes to build another new line along a similar route. The Line 3 pipe line brings in tar sands from Alberta, Canada to Superior, Wisc. The company and some officials insist that pipelines are the safest way to transport crude oil and tar sands. Native Americans claim that the pipelines violate treaties set in place over a century ago and threatens their land, wild rice crops and way of life. Other concerned citizens also weighed in on the environmental impact Enbridge has had in the past and their hopes to build a more sustainable and environmentally friendly future.
Upon driving into McGregor on Highway 210 we observed around seven or eight semis with empty flatbed trailers heading back the opposite direction towards Cromwell and Duluth. They did not appear to be logging trucks and the question came up about what exactly they might have been hauling.
The town hall type meeting was being led by representatives of Enbridge as well as area officials but would end up with people’s statements about the proposed project that would be taken into consideration by the PUC when determining whether or not to approve a new Line 3 pipeline.
In January there was a similar meeting dealing with the Sandpiper pipeline that would carry fracked crude oil from North Dakota to Superior, Wisc. Hundreds showed up to the Holiday Center ballroom and it was more or less 50/50 on those speaking for and against the pipeline. The pipeline was approved later in June by the PUC with a 5-0 vote to construct the $2.6 billion pipeline. Both the Sandpiper and Line 3 run through the 1855 treaty area promised to the Ojibwe people. The pipelines cut across miles of lakes, wilderness and the headwaters of the Mississippi. While it certainly seems fair to have an open discussion at a town hall type of meeting, one can’t but help get the feeling that the process leans towards the company no matter what the “liberal hippies” and indigenous people say. Sure, everyone gets their turn to speak, but with a 5-0 decision from the PUC after hours of debate back in January, it seems like concerns about the environment or observing treaties just fell on deaf ears.
The recent meeting at 11 a.m. in McGregor had more speakers against the pipeline than those who were for it, but as pipeline supporter Rick Klein stated, “We need to come together because this pipeline will be built eventually.” Klein said that he understood the seriousness of putting pipelines through Minnesota. “We need to make sure that this system is put in with the highest and most advanced system possible to show the country that we can do it in Minnesota as we always do.” While this certainly seems like a solid plan, it should be noted that the old Enbridge Line 3 pipeline has had at least 900 “anomalies” over the years which can be contributed to “pipeline fatigue” with incidents of cracking and leaks. If this is an indication of how “we always do” things, that’s cause for concern. Those against the new pipeline would like to see the old pipeline shut down and dismantled.
One of the main arguments for having pipelines is the danger of transporting oil by railroad. One prime example is the Lac-Megantic rail disaster that happened in 2013 where the majority of the town was burned down from an explosion of a number of tank cars filled with Bakken crude oil. Over 40 people died from the accident. The problem with the logic of putting pipelines before rail is that there aren’t any known plans to decrease rail shipments. A local activist, Jesse Peterson, noted during his discourse that he once asked Representative Rick Nolan if there were any plans to phase out rail shipments with the introduction of more pipelines and he failed to receive a definitive answer. At best, pipelines might slow the increase of rail shipments, but it’s unlikely that it will fully replace it or make much more than a small dent and there certainly will be accidents with both pipelines and rail transport in the future.
House Representative, Dale Lueck, spoke at the meeting and stated his support of the pipeline. “We are a country that put a man on the moon and brought him back while no one else did that. Our young people are the best and the brightest in this country. We have the capacity to build a great pipeline and do it in a safe manner. If we can’t do those things in the future, then our civilization is doomed,” said Lueck. There was a sense of unease in the some of the audience after Lueck made that statement. While there is definitely room for improvement with pipelines and technology, the idea of a perfectly safe pipeline is a little farfetched.
According to Enbridge, between 1999 and 2010, the company has reported 804 spills with 5 million gallons lost from pipe leak incidents. Duluth resident, Yasmina Antcliff, explained her views on Enbridge being allowed to put in more pipelines, “If you had seven children and hired a babysitter and when you came home two of the kids were dead, would you hire that person back?”
While those for the pipeline used the argument of how dangerous rail transportation is, those against it weren’t hesitant to bring up the spill that happened in Kalamazoo, Mich. in 2010. Enbridge workers ignored the alarms that went off when they figured there was a blockage in the pipe and actually increased the pressure, thus spilling more oil into the Kalamazoo River to clear the nonexistent blockage. With over 1 million gallons spilled, the clean up costs had added up to over $650 million by 2012. It was one of the worst spills on American soil and water.
Speakers such as Tribal Chair Woman of the Sandy Lake Band of Mississippi Chippewa, Sandra Skinaway, stated concern about the land and water where she and her ancestors before her have held sacred. “As I’ve said many times in the past, Aiken County is like one big swamp where there are many aquifers that are present and connected. Pipelines will destroy all of that,” said Skinaway. “We have a responsibility to protect for the generations yet to come as we’re responsible for at least seven generations into the future. Pipelines have a track record and are known to leak. As a matter of fact they’re pretty much guaranteed to leak sooner or later.”
While the public meeting was happening on Tuesday in McGregor, that wasn’t the only thing going on when it comes to people speaking up about pipeline expansion. In Washington D.C. a group of youth environmental activists known as “Midwest Unrest” gathered outside of Secretary of State John Kerry’s residence. The group felt that Enbridge was being allowed to put in pipelines with impunity and demanded that more attention be paid to environmental issues, specifically with pipelines. 20 were arrested for blocking the sidewalk outside of Kerry’s home.
As the meeting was finishing up, we set back on the road to Duluth. That’s when we noticed several semis with flat bed trailers heading towards McGregor. They were hauling two foot wide pipes that were approximately 40 feet long each. Out of curiosity we drove by the Cromwell rail yard and didn’t notice anything. As we entered Duluth we noticed another couple of semis with large pipes in tow. We stopped by the Port Terminal under the Blatnik Bridge. We must have passed the acres of pipe stacked up in the port dozens of times going to and from Duluth without noticing. That amount of pipe would span for miles from the looks of it.
While the meeting was taking place in the high school gym, it appeared that Enbridge was already well on their way to putting in more pipelines. We called Enbridge to see which pipeline the trucks were heading to but their automated phone system said there was “no operator available” at 4 p.m.
In the end, it looks like Enbridge will get their way. The pipeline projects will bring jobs to the Northland. It will keep gas prices a little lower. The question we need to ask ourselves is, is it worth the risk with so much hanging in the balance? One would hope that an environmental disaster will never happen in the heart of Minnesota’s lakes and rivers; water that eventually leads to Lake Superior. When looking at the track record of companies like Enbridge, it’s really just a matter of time before something happens and that will be a tragic day.