Mary Annette Pember
Indian Country Today

The state of Minnesota has backed down from efforts to evict water protectors from the Red Lake Treaty Camp near an Enbridge Line 3 construction site, but tensions remain high over concerns about the work’s impact on sensitive water levels.

The Minnesota Department of Transportation issued an eviction notice on Tuesday, June 22, demanding that water protectors vacate the camp by 5 p.m. on June 23. The notice was delivered to the camp the same day by Pennington County sheriff’s deputies with police dogs.

The Department of Transportation abruptly rescinded the eviction notice the next day as the deadline approached, however — the same day Minnesota Gov. Tim Walz received a letter from the Minnesota Chippewa Tribe challenging Enbridge’s plan to increase its water usage from 500 million to nearly 5 billion gallons of water.

The letter from tribal President Cathy Chavers supports the White Earth Nation’s claim that the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources failed to adequately consult with the White Earth Nation when issuing an amendment allowing Enbridge to increase its water usage. 

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Chavers asks that the state agency rescind the new permit, saying that displacing more water will have a detrimental impact on wild rice, one of the most sacred foods for Ojibwe people. The Minnesota Chippewa Tribe is the centralized governmental authority for six bands of Chippewa or Ojibwe in the state.

Water protectors have been camped for about seven months with little interference from authorities at a site they say is protected under agreements made as part of the Treaty of 1836. The camp sits adjacent to the Enbridge construction site north of St. Hilaire, Minnesota, in Pennington County.

A permit from the Red Lake Tribal Council authorizes the Red Lake Treaty Camp through Dec. 21, 2021. (Photo courtesy of the Indigenous Environmental Network)

In previous meetings with Red Lake tribal leaders, local law enforcement and the state departments of transportation and public safety, water protectors were assured that they could remain at the camp, where they are engaged in ceremony and prayer, according to Sam Strong, tribal secretary for the Red Lake Nation.

“They’ve lied to us,” Strong said. “They tell us one thing then do another.”

Tenfold increase in water use

Enbridge workers recently began using a horizontal drill to bore under the Red Lake River.

Indigenous people opposing the pipeline are concerned that Enbridge’s increased use of groundwater — a tenfold increase — to “dewater” construction sites while drilling will threaten the health of wild rice growing in Upper and Lower Rice Lakes and other locations along the pipeline route.

Although the permit allows Enbridge to pump shallow groundwater only from its construction areas, not lakes or wetlands, opponents say that even a temporary reduction in the groundwater levels can have a negative impact on growing wild rice plants, which are sensitive to changing water levels.

During the dewatering process, groundwater from a construction site is removed, stored temporarily, treated and then discharged nearby where it once again soaks into the ground.

Enbridge’s permit specifies that water removed from construction sites must be run through a large fabric bag that filters out sediment before the water is discharged into well-vegetated upland areas or constructed stormwater ponds.

“Wild rice habitat is so sensitive that even discharging water can kill off or weaken the rice forever,” Strong said.

Department of Natural Resources officials, however, said that they have determined that the increased pumping of water won’t threaten the groundwater sustainability or otherwise impact natural resources.

Enbridge spokeswoman Juli Kellner attributed the need to pump more water in part to the company’s decision to use more wellpoint systems — a series of wells installed along the excavated trench that lower the shallow groundwater.

Strong accused the state of colluding with Enbridge to clear the Treaty camp.

“It’s really disappointing to know that state government and local government are participating in limited our religious freedoms and killing our ability to feed our people,“ Strong said.

‘Dear tribal leader’

After the eviction notice was rescinded, Minnesota Department of Transportation Commissioner Margaret Anderson Kelliher sent a statement via email to Indian Country Today.

“MN DOT’s goals are ensuring public safety and respecting the ability of peaceful protestors to have their voices heard,” she said in the statement. “The site on (Highway) 32 has grown in size and become challenging to ensure safety for the people there and motorists on the highway. MN DOT remains in close coordination with Red Lake Nation tribal leadership to ensure cultural practices and ceremony can continue in a safe way.”

Although the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources say officials there “coordinated with tribal nations prior to amending Enbridge’s water appropriation permit,” White Earth Nation Chairman Michael Fairbanks says that the agency’s consultation efforts often amount to a couple of emails that frequently end up falling through the cracks.

“The DNR sends out these generic notices addressed to, “dear tribal leader.” They fail to emphasize the importance of these letters, then they can say they’ve consulted with us,” Fairbanks said.

Meanwhile, despite three arrests on Monday, June 21, water protectors continue to occupy a prayer lodge built by Tania Aubid and Winona LaDuke in Aitkin County near another Enbridge construction site. 

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This article contains material from The Associated Press.

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