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Minnesota Opinion: Enbridge's transparency lacking after breaches

From the editorial: "The public was kept in the dark when it should have been immediately informed."

FILE: Enbridge Line 3.jpg
A crew works in a 10-foot hole along Enbridge's Line 3 oil pipeline near Bemidji in 2020. File / Forum News Service
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With a construction project as major, as heavily scrutinized, and as closely watched and monitored as the Line 3 pipeline replacement last year, extreme, even over-the-top, care to do it right had to have been the expectation.

Nonetheless, as cautious as Enbridge, its contractors, and workers may have been, last week the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources announced it had completed an investigation into three incidents during pipeline construction in which groundwater aquifers were struck by digging equipment and ruptured, the resulting flooding “more severe than previously known,” as one headline in Duluth declared.

About 260 million gallons of groundwater flowed to the surface in the three incidents, and one of the breaches is still leaking. Resulting changes in water levels and groundwater flow at one of the sites threaten the Fond du Lac Band’s water-quality standards as well as its wild-rice waters and production, the band said. It’s monitoring for possible damage, about all it can do at this point.

As concerning as the inadequate care not to dig too deep and rupture an aquifer is, a lack of transparency from Enbridge following the breaches may be even more troubling, especially to those who care about northern Minnesota’s clean-water supplies and who trusted Enbridge.

The last of the three breaches, on the western edge of the Fond du Lac Reservation, was first discovered in September when workers removed materials that were being used to stabilize the pipeline trench. But the rupture wasn’t publicly acknowledged until last week, according to the Associated Press. That was six months of silence. The public was kept in the dark when it should have been immediately informed.

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Similarly, the first of the breaches, near the Clearbrook terminal in northwestern Minnesota, occurred in January 2021. But five months passed before the DNR learned about it and nearly a year lapsed before the uncontrolled flow was stopped, according to Minnesota Public Radio.

Enbridge has paid more than $3 million in fines for the incidents, with the Minnesota Attorney General’s Office still considering possibly prosecuting, according to reports. More fines are being pursued.

So is legislation to increase fines and penalties for such violations. In response to the breaches, lawmakers in St. Paul this session have introduced a bill to “give the DNR a slate of new accountability measures for water users who violate their permits,” MPR reported. If approved, a maximum penalty of $20,000 — “pocket change for a major energy company” and apparently “too low to deter violators,” as the MPR story stated — would be doubled to $40,000. Also, “The worst offenders who harm the state's waters or those who profit from violations could face court-ordered civil penalties of up to $10,000 a day.”

"We have a multibillion-dollar corporation violating permits and impacting our state waters,” state Rep. Jamie Becker-Finn, DFL-Roseville, the House bill’s author, said in the story. “And the tools that we have to hold them accountable seemed to not be enough."

In its defense, Enbridge took swift action to stop the leaks and repair damage and is now "taking steps to improve our procedures to prevent this type of occurrence in the future,” as the company said in a statement. “We are dedicated to resolving these matters quickly and thoroughly as we continue to work with the regulatory agencies on the ongoing restoration and monitoring at all three sites.”

Enbridge said most of the water discharged was returned to the ground nearby and that only a small amount had to be removed for treatment.

Additionally, a 391-page corrective action plan was prepared by Barr Engineering and posted by the DNR after approval by all necessary tribal and state agencies.

"Enbridge takes protecting the environment seriously,” Enbridge spokeswoman in Duluth Juli Kellner said in a Star Tribune story last week. “We regret this happened and are taking steps to improve our procedures to prevent this type of occurrence in the future."

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These types of occurrences probably shouldn’t happen at all, although the possibility of human error always needs to be taken into account. But when these breaches did happen, the appropriate authorities and the public — all of us who care about our supplies of clean water — should have been promptly notified. And we weren’t.

Minnesota Opinion editorial
Minnesota Opinion editorial
Forum News Service graphic

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