BEMIDJI, Minn. -- Despite cold temps and freezing rain, a group of around 40 protesters blocked off the entrances at Enbridge’s Bemidji office in opposition to the oil company’s Line 3 replacement project early Friday morning, April 9.
According to a statement from activist group Giniw Collective, those present were “protesting the company bulldozing through Minnesota wetlands, watersheds and Anishinaabe treaty territory as lawsuits led by three Ojibwe tribes opposed to Line 3 remain pending.”
When reporters arrived on scene at 9:30 a.m., Bemidji police officers had blockaded the streets to all thru-traffic. A little while later, around 9:55 a.m., they warned they would issue an order for the protesters to disperse after 20 minutes, stating whoever chose not to leave by then on their own would be arrested. They then gave warnings every five minutes until the official order was given around 11:15 a.m. to disperse.
The roughly 30 protesters who were milling about and holding up signs left after the order was given, but another 11 who were attached together in locking devices stayed, awaiting arrest. All 11 were arrested.
Of those 11, three separate groups blocked the three entrances into the office campus. Those who were locked together were wearing “sleeping dragon” devices, attaching themselves to one another -- many lying on the ground in sleeping bags for warmth, while others were also locked to the fences outside of the entrances.
After consistent freezing rain all morning with temperatures in the mid-30s, the rain fell more heavily around 11 a.m., leaving all those left at the scene soaked to the core. Organizers warned those locked down about the potential risk of developing hypothermia.
One of the protesters, who declined to give their real name and instead asked to be identified as "Darrell Moore," came all the way from St. Louis and said they had been there about two hours as of 9:45 a.m.
“I’m from St. Louis and in the neighborhoods I grew up in, we have a lot of similar issues with people treating our lands like they can just dump whatever they want there,” Moore said. “I’ve lost some people really close to me because of the repercussions of having toxic waste in your backyard. To me, it’s kind of like what else would I be doing? You can’t just let that happen, watch your community be affected by it and just not try to stop this from continuing.”
Moore said they usually stay local with their activism but was invited to come to Minnesota to protest Line 3. It was their first experience being locked down in a “sleeping dragon” device.
“If we don’t get cut out, I’d like to shut down work for the full day,” Moore said. “To my understanding, this is where their engineers work.”
In a statement, Enbridge spokesperson Juli Kellner said that the protest didn’t hinder their morning work operations.
“Like most folks who have continued to work during the COVID-19 pandemic, Enbridge employees are well versed in moving meetings to virtual platforms, and conducting administrative work remotely, so no work was held up by the protest,” Kellner said.
One protester, a commercial fisherman from Massachusetts, who learned about the impacts of the project and felt compelled to travel to Minnesota said, “I’m happy to be here. I want to let Enbridge know we will not be leaving, we will be here for a very long time.”
Law enforcement presence
According to the Giniw Collective, Indigenous people and Minnesota locals have reported heavy surveillance, targeted pullovers and harassment by law enforcement in connection with Line 3 resistance.
In response to the law enforcement presence, Enbridge stated, “We recognize the rights of individuals and groups to express their views legally and peacefully. We don’t tolerate illegal activities of any kind, including trespassing.”
The initial law enforcement officers present at the scene Friday consisted of primarily Bemidji police officers, however as time went on, several Beltrami and Polk County sheriff deputies and State Patrol officers arrived, along with a Bemidji ambulance, resulting in emergency personnel far outnumbering the remaining protesters.
Around 11:30 a.m., the Minnesota State Patrol arrived with equipment to facilitate the removal of the protestors’ locking devices. Saws were used to cut through the devices, which appeared to be made with reinforced metal bars.
The protestors were covered with tarps and provided with eye and ear protection as law enforcement began sawing at the devices.
Officers warned the protesters over their loudspeakers, “If you do not remove the immobilization device for yourself, officials will remove the device which could cause burns, cuts or other injuries. We will also charge a fee of $5,000.”
Kellner expressed Enbridge’s disappointment regarding the situation, reiterating that Line 3 is the most studied pipeline project in Minnesota history.
“We hoped all parties would come to accept the outcome of the thorough, science-based review and multiple approvals of the project,” she said. “Line 3 has passed every test through six years of regulatory and permitting review including 70 public comment meetings, appellate review and reaffirmation of a 13,500-page EIS, four separate reviews by administrative law judges, 320 route modifications in response to stakeholder input, and multiple reviews and approvals on the state, federal and tribal levels.”
A protester identified in the Giniw Collective release as Alex said, “This is part of my responsibility as someone who is a guest on this land and as someone who faces the impacts of climate change. Enbridge lies.”
According to Kellner, Enbridge feels they have demonstrated ongoing respect for tribal sovereignty.
“As the result of negotiations with tribal leadership, Line 3 was routed outside of the Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe Nation and through the Fond du Lac Band of Lake Superior Chippewa,” she said. “Both Leech Lake and Fond du Lac have spoken and written repeatedly in support of project permits.”
Public safety costs
The Giniw Collective claimed in their statement that Beltrami County is one of the top-billing counties to the “Public Safety Escrow Trust” funded by Enbridge and overseen by Minnesota to pay police for all costs associated with Line 3 protests. It also said that law enforcement along the proposed route has billed thousands of hours of “overtime” to Enbridge, with Cass County alone billing 7,500 hours to the Enbridge escrow account in three months.
However, Kellner explained that as a condition to the route permit for the Line 3 replacement project, the Minnesota Public Utilities Commission required Enbridge to create a Public Safety Escrow Account for the reimbursement of local governments regarding costs of public safety around the project replacement.
“To receive payment from the Public Safety Escrow Account, Local Government Units submit written, itemized requests to the Public Safety Liaison, who was appointed by the Minnesota PUC,” she said. “The Public Safety Liaison makes the determination on eligible expenses and then authorizes payments from the account accordingly. In other words, these requests are not made to, nor does payment come from, Enbridge.”
Beltrami County was recently reimbursed more than $170,522 for expenses related to Line 3 construction site law enforcement. This includes expenses incurred by the Beltrami County Sheriff’s Office for training deputies, purchasing equipment and other expenses related to mutual aid requests from neighboring law enforcement agencies in support of the Northern Lights Task Force.
“The replacement of Line 3 is an essential maintenance and safety project that enhances environmental protection,” Kellner said. “It also is creating significant economic benefits for Minnesota counties, small businesses, Native American communities, and union members including 5,200 construction jobs, millions of dollars in local spending and tax revenues at a time when the state needs it most.”