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The Enbridge Line 3 Pipeline Project Divides Indian Country

By Kaomi Lee

Story published: May 6, 2021

Taysha Martineau walks through the Miigizi resistance camp on Fond du Lac reservation near Cloquet, Minn., with her four kids scurrying around her, and takes stock of new arrivals in the food tent for the eight full-time residents. She is a member of the Fond du Lac band and one of the Native voices leading a resistance against the Line 3 pipeline project.

"We found the spot, there were two eagles flying above it, I realized this was it," Martineau said about how the camp came to be. "I realized that we could have a camp, right next to Enbridge, so they know we’re out here and that not everyone is in agreement in this project."

Canadian energy company Enbridge is installing a new, wider pipe across 337 miles of northern Minnesota. The new pipeline will transport Canadian tar sands oil to refineries in Superior, Wis. According to the company, the $2.6 billion project within the state's border will replace an existing pipeline that dates back to the 1960s. Enbridge maintains that the aged pipeline is decrepit and represents an environmental risk if not replaced. But the new pipeline cuts through using a new route. Environmentalists and several Native American tribes have taken their opposition to both the new pipeline and its route to the courts.

"I’ll put myself on the line, and I’ll do direct action, I’ll protest, I’ll stand in front of a machine so my relatives are able to pray," Martineau vowed.

Fond Du Lac is one of three sovereign Native nations that have settled with Enbridge over the re-routing of Line 3. Financial details of those agreements have not been disclosed. Chair Kevin Dupuis said the band eventually allowed the replacement route to traverse the same route as the existing line through 13.2 miles of the reservation.

"The original plan, if it were to go through, would go through the ceded territory, and we didn’t want any new corridors to go through the ceded territory and not to have any say so [about it]," he told Almanac recently.

Insiders have told Almanac that Enbridge has offered tribal governments as much as $100 million in exchange for support for the replacement line. Dupuis disputes that his band supports anything beyond its borders. But he did indicate that these agreements are about more than money.

"The decision was based on the outlook of the future, and no matter how you slice that pie at the end of the day, and whomever is the new administration [of Fond du Lac], there’s still five lines here. They are going to have to deal with them sometime," he said.

At a nearby Enbridge pump station in Swatera, Minn., Ashley Diver wore a hard hat and toured her future worksite. Diver, a single mother of four, had just been hired to work as a welder assistant. She was also a recipient of an Enbridge-sponsored skills training program offered to 150 Native people. Diver is an enrolled member of Fond du Lac. She says she was grateful to learn new skills and the opportunity to improve her earning potential.

"So I was making $15 an hour working as a cultural advisor at the treatment center and I could barely put food on the table," Diver said. Now, she expects to take home $1400 a week. She's one of 400 Native Americans currently working on the project, either directly for Enbridge or for a contractor. Diver says she's been criticized by others in her own band.

"People saying that I was a sellout and a traitor," she said. "At the end of the day, this needs to be done. I wish more people would be part of this project to make sure that it’s put in safely instead of trying to stop something that needs to be replaced," she added.

Enbridge got its last approvals from state regulators last year. Construction started in November. Today, Enbridge says the replacement project is about half complete and has survived six years of rigorous review.

"It feels great to be where we are today," said Paul Eberth, the national director of tribal engagement.

In February, Enbridge filed a report with the state on its tribal inclusion efforts, including investing $1 million for radio and fire departments and food for elders. An additional $150 million was spent to hire Native- or tribal-owned businesses in the state. Eberth says Enbridge invested in more tribal inclusion efforts than in past pipeline projects.

"We made 320 route modifications… input came not only from the cultural resources survey, but a full environmental impact statement was done by the state of Minnesota. It was 13,000 pages, and there were numerous public meetings," Eberth said. And about 60 modifications were made to protect culturally sensitive areas.

"Some have claimed the demand hasn’t been proven, but right now, Line 3 is full, it’s operating at maximum capacity, that oil is going to end users and refiners, and it’s being demanded today."

While Enbridge maintains the line is full, it is, however, not running at full capacity. Safety risks and the condition of the pipe have reduced the flow by about half of its full capacity. Work connecting the new route over water crossings is currently on hold until June 1 because of seasonal temperature changes. That work stoppage has been a welcome relief for protesters and opponents.

"Regardless of now what’s going on, it’s now in the legal environment, things may have been different in the beginning if we may have been consulted from the very beginning from the discussion six years ago," Melanie Benjamin, chair of the Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe, said recently. Her band is among those making legal challenges to Line 3.

One of the arguments opponents have made centers on the application for the certificate of need for the new pipeline. Native opponents, or "water protectors" as many call themselves, said the company has not clearly demonstrated the demand for more oil.

"The oil is going overseas, it's all being exported out," said Tania Aubid, a member of the Rice Lake Band of Ojibwe who has been living at the resistance camp near Palisade, Minn. "Why do they really need it? Just to fill the pockets of just a few people?" This spring, Aubid began an extended hunger strike to draw attention to the resistance movement. And yet others contend that the loss of the pipeline project would starve communities already economically struggling from the pandemic across northern Minnesota.

Annie McMurrin is a member of the White Earth Band of Ojibwe and is mayor of Walker, Minn. She said the pipeline has been an economic boon for her city.

"We’re all very small towns, and with this last year of COVID, it’s hurt a lot of people, all the hotels and motels were full, and now with them gone for a month or so, you can already see the difference," she said. McMurrin herself works for an Enbridge security contractor. She says she fears all the delays and legal challenges will just end up costing everyone more in the long run.

"It’s gonna get put in. Let's just work together to put it in safely. They keep delaying the inevitable, and guess where that’s going to trickle down to?"

Minnesota is no stranger to debate when it comes to projects like Enbridge Line 3. In 2019 As of 2019, Almanac's David Gillette traveled to Ely, Minn., the community closest to the proposed Twin Metals copper-nickel mine site in the BWCA area, to learn about the geology, the environmental concerns and the competing politics behind this controversial project. 

In late September 2018, youth organizer Mary Anne Quiroz traveled with 148 young indigenous and Latinx people to the Standing Rock protest camp, which at the time was host to upwards of 5,000 - some say as many as 10,000- people protesting the Dakota Access Pipeline in North Dakota. As the December 5, 2018 deadline to evacuate the protest site neared, Quiroz prepared to travel to Standing Rock once more. She sat down with us to talk about leading the youth caravan and her return trip to the camp.

Kaomi Lee Read More
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