Enbridge Line 3 Pipeline Storage Yards Appear to Violate Law, MPCA Approved Them with No Scrutiny

Pipeline storage yard near White Earth.

For years, Enbridge has operated large pipeline storage yards around northern Minnesota in anticipation that the Minnesota Pubic Utilities Commission (PUC) would eventually approve its Line 3 tar sands crude oil pipeline through the state.

However, critics say Enbridge got permits for these storage yards in 2014 and 2015 under false pretenses. It applied online through the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency (MPCA) for storm water construction permits. It checked the box that said the project had completed all necessary environmental reviews. While that wasn’t true, the permit got electronically approved because all the correct boxes were checked.

The Star Tribune wrote about the controversy today’s paper in an article headlined: Pipeline opponents claim Enbridge skirted permit rules for storage yard: Enbridge in a statement said the “permits were issued in compliance with applicable regulations at the time.”  A key passage says:

Under law and MPCA regulations, permits such as those for Enbridge’s pipe yards aren’t supposed to be issued before the completion of an environmental review for an entire project. The MPCA wrote to Enbridge in March that the pipe-yard permits were approved “prior to completion of the required environmental review” of Line 3.

(Note: It was only this month that the Line 3 environmental impact statement was deemed “adequate” by an administrative law judge, and it still needs final PUC approval.)

These storage yards create the impression that this pipeline is a done deal. They show disregard for the ongoing review and approval process. They are an attempt to bias the project.

Quick reminder: Enbridge’s existing Line 3 is old and failing. It wants to build a new and larger Line 3 along a new route that will take it through the Mississippi headwaters and threaten wild rice areas. Enbrdige already has started Line 3 construction in Canada and it has completed a small section in Wisconsin. It will abandon the old Line 3 in the ground.

According to the Star Tribune story, pipeline opponent and retired MPCA employee Willis Mattison has pushed the state to justify why it approved the stormwater construction permits before the environmental reviews were complete.

Enbridge claims that at the time it applied for the permits, the current law was not in effect. Honor the Earth attorney Paul Blackburn dismisses that argument as untrue. As noted above, “The MPCA wrote to Enbridge in March that the pipe-yard permits were approved “prior to completion of the required environmental review” of Line 3.” So MPCA acknowledged the online application was faulty.

But the MPCA and the PUC provided some pretty dodgy answers. According to the Star Tribune:

The MPCA said in a statement that it processes thousands of construction stormwater permits annually through its online system. “It would be impossible to manually double-check on the status of any pending environmental reviews for each individual application,” the agency said.

Comment: This is a permit for a major infrastructure project, not for a culvert for a cabin access road. Saying that MPCA has too many permits to review doesn’t cut it here.

So what was the follow-up action? Are there consequences for Enbridge’s actions? The answer is “no,” according to an MPCA statement to the Star Tribune:

“MPCA did not assess a penalty against Enbridge because the company complied with all construction stormwater requirements and because there was no harmful environmental impact from construction of the pipe yards.”

Comment: The MPCA is saying that it had the option to impose a penalty but chose not to. The MPCA is saying you can misrepresent a billion-dollar project in an online application and it will look the other way as long there is no environmental harm, in this case from the staging areas. This is not in keeping with the spirit of the law. MPCA’s inaction makes no sense. It sets a bad precedent for other companies to follow.

Like the MPCA, the PUC seems to want to duck this question, too.

The PUC appeared to reject the claims, citing state pipeline construction rules. The PUC wrote Thursday to Mattison that there’s no evidence that Enbridge’s pipe yards are on land within the Line 3 route itself, thus no construction on the pipeline itself has begun.

Comment: That is tortured logic. The issue should not be whether or not the pipes are stored on land along Line 3’s proposed route. The point is that Enbridge has started work on the project by creating staging areas and hauling in pipeline.

Someone at MPCA needed to catch this faulty permit sooner, and the agency needed to hold Enbridge accountable.

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