Associated Press/Report for America
MINNEAPOLIS — A Minnesota regulatory panel on Friday denied a request from two tribes to prevent Enbridge Energy from moving forward with its contentious Line 3 crude oil pipeline replacement, which broke ground this week after receiving its final state permit.
The Red Lake and White Earth Bands of Chippewa asked the independent Public Utilities Commission to stay its earlier approval of the project, citing pending litigation before the Minnesota Court of Appeals. Attorneys for the two northern Minnesota tribes argued that allowing construction to continue would cause irreparable harm should the court rule in their favor.
The commission voted 4-1 to reject the request.
Commissioners said further delaying construction would hurt workers who have already arrived in northern Minnesota, and that the court has the authority to halt construction on its own should it rule in the tribes' favor. Members also cited Democratic Gov. Tim Walz's executive order designating construction as critical amid the pandemic, and Enbridge's COVID-19 safety protocols.
"I think it would be an unconscionable disregard for the irreparable harm to these workers if the commission grants the motion to stay," Commissioner Valerie Means said. "I will not support granting the motion to stay and driving these workers into unemployment where work is available, can be done safely, and there's no credible evidence to the contrary."
Means, Chairwoman Katie Sieben, and Commissioners John Tuma and Joseph Sullivan voted to deny the motion. Commissioner Matthew Schuerger cast the dissenting vote.
Calgary, Alberta-based Enbridge began construction on the $2.6 billion project after receiving a construction stormwater permit from the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency on Monday, the final obstacle following years of legal challenges and environmental reviews.
The company provided an updated COVID-19 plan on Wednesday that includes on-the-job safety measures that include regular testing and daily health and temperature screenings, as well as off-site protocols for workers to prevent community spread.
"This decision is a reconfirmation of the Minnesota Public Utilities Commission's previous approvals for the replacement of Line 3," Enbridge spokeswoman Juli Kellner said in a statement that also noted that more than 1,000 people were now working on the project. "We hope all parties will now accept the outcome of this thorough, science based review of Line 3."
Opponents say the pipeline threatens spillage and irreparable damage to waters the tribes use to fish and harvest wild rice, and that the influx of construction workers into communities along the Line 3 corridor would worsen the spread of COVID-19. Winona La Duke, executive director of Honor the Earth, called the decision "predictable" and criticized the panel for not waiting for the appeals court.
"Without a stay, Line 3 would be constructed before the court could determine if the PUC broke the law, making the case moot," LaDuke said in a statement. "The Court of Appeals should have the opportunity to decide if the PUC broke the law."
Two protesters on Friday climbed and occupied trees along the Line 3 corridor that are set to be cut down to make room for drilling in an attempt to slow construction, according to a release from an activist group. The Aitkin County Sheriff's Office didn't immediately respond to questions about the claim. Kellner did not directly confirm the protest when asked, but said the company won't tolerate illegal activities.
Line 3 begins in Alberta, Canada, and clips a corner of North Dakota before crossing Minnesota on its way to Enbridge's terminal in Superior, Wisconsin. The replacement segments in Canada, North Dakota and Wisconsin are already complete, leaving only the 337-mile (542-kilometer) stretch in Minnesota. Altogether Enbridge expects to spend $2.9 billion on the U.S. portion.
Mohamed Ibrahim is a corps member for the Associated Press/Report for America Statehouse News Initiative. Report for America is a nonprofit national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms to report on undercovered issues.