With Proverbial Gun to its Head, PUC Turns Gun on Fond Du Lac Band Instead

Enbridge wants to offer landowners along the current Line 3’s 282-mile corridor a one-time payment to allow Enbridge to leave the decaying pipeline in the ground for future generations.

In a now infamous statement, Minnesota Public Utilities Commission (PUC) member Dan Lipschultz complained that the Enbridge Line 3 pipeline proposal put a “gun to the head” of the PUC.

If the PUC didn’t approve the new pipeline, Enbridge would keep running its old, decaying pipeline, risking a major spill in northern Minnesota, something Lipschultz and Commissioner Nancy Lange said they could not live with.

The PUC could have done the responsible thing and pushed federal regulators and Enbridge to decommission and remove the old Line 3. It didn’t.

Instead, the PUC chose to put Fond du Lac Band in a no-win situation, passing along the proverbial gun to the head. The PUC gave Fond du Lac the illusion of choice by forcing it to pick between two awful choices.

Three Bad Options

The PUC considered actually three bad options to complete the eastern end of Line 3 through Minnesota, which eventually connects to Superior, Wisc. The options were:

  1. Line 3 crosses the Mississippi River near Big Sandy Lake, a sacred site to the Anishinaabe. The PUC took that option off the table.
  2. Line 3 skirts the Fond du Lac Reservation, opening up a new pipeline corridor, including loss of trees and wildlife on lands where Fond du Lac has off reservation treaty rights to hunt, fish and gather. (Route Segment Alternative 21. See map below.)
  3. Line 3 stays in the same corridor, crossing Fond du Lac reservation lands (Route Segment Alternative 22. See map below.)

In a letter to the PUC, Fond du Lac said it would opt to keep the line passing through the reservation:

As the Commission knows, the Band has significant concerns about replacement Line 3, and has been in discussions with Enbridge about many aspects of this project … The Band has responded to Enbridge’s latest proposal. Provided that Enbridge and the Band are able to reach agreement on terms, the Band is willing to consider an agreement with Enbridge under which [Route Segment Alternative] 22 could be approved …

The Band’s paramount concern is protecting and preserving both on-and off-reservation resources, and either [Route Segment Alternative] will have significant adverse impacts on the Band.

The Band also preserved all of its legal rights to appeal the PUC’s decision in its letter.

Comment: Unlike the PUC, which had another option to get out its supposed bind, the Fond du Lac Band did not have another option.

Here are maps of the two alternative routes.

Route Segment Alternative 22 uses the existing corridor, crossing Fond du Lac

Route Segment 21 (in orange) reuses the existing pipeline trench through the reservation. Black is Enbridge’s preferred route. (Map is from the Line 3 Final Environmental Impact Statement.)

Route Segment Alternative 21 Goes Around Fond du Lac to the West and South

Fond du Lac is about five miles to the east of where this image ends. The alternative route segment is in orange, Enbridge’s preferred route is in black. (Map image from the Line 3 Final Environmental Impact Statement.)

This is no Sell-Out

The website Stop Line 3 wrote an insightful article on Fond du Lac’s decision, in an article headlined: Fond du Lac Band Faces Impossible Choice in Line 3 Routing. It said:

For some, the headlines may imply that Fond du Lac is “selling out” and cooperating with Enbridge to accept another pipeline on their lands, but in fact, the Band’s assertive opposition to this pipeline has never wavered.  (For reference, see the Band’s petition to intervene in the State of Minnesota’s regulatory process, and Chairperson Dupuis’s op-ed article, both from May 2017).  Despite the Band’s opposition, however, the State’s approval of the project has put the Band in an impossible situation.  Tragically, a decision to allow the new Line 3 on its reservation may be the Band’s best option for minimizing impacts to the resources its members depend on for survival.

Environmental Harm from Segment 21

The Line 3 Final Environmental Impact Statement discusses the environmental impacts had Fond du Lac chosen Route Segment Alternative 21. It said, in part:

RSA-21 eliminates crossings of, and increases separation between, the pipeline and the Sandy River. It does not eliminate impacts on wild rice waters, and it crosses an additional designated trout stream.

RSA-21 avoids crossing the Sandy River; however, it crosses the West Savanna River, Prairie River, and Tamarack River, all of which flow to Big Sandy Lake. The RSA also crosses a wetland that, based on desktop analysis, is hydrologically connected to the Little Tamarack River, which flows to the Tamarack River and into Big Sandy Lake. Therefore, while RSA-21 might eliminate potential impacts on the Sandy River from an accidental release of oil, it does not necessary avoid potential impacts on Big Sandy Lake.

RSA-21 passes adjacent to Moose Lake, an identified wild rice water. It crosses the Tamarack River approximately 0.5 mile upstream of Tamarack Lake, a wild rice water. Additionally, the RSA crosses West Savanna River, Prairie River, and Tamarack River, all of which flow to Big Sandy Lake.

Why Big Sandy Lake is Sacred

Marker near Big Sandy Lake remembers the 400 Anishinaabe who died there in 1850.

This is an important time to remember why Anishinaabe people (the Ojibwe) hold Big Sandy Lake as sacred, and why they opposed Enbridge’s preferred route that ran nearby. The Mille Lacs Band provides the following history:

What happened at Big Sandy Lake is a little known story in mainstream United States history, but the Anishinaabe people never forgot that more than 400 Ojibwe died due to the removal schemes of the state and federal governments.

In the fall of 1850, Ojibwe from Minnesota, Wisconsin and Michigan tribes were due annuities from the federal government. These annuities were normally paid at La Pointe, Wisconsin, but the government informed the tribes that they must instead be at Sandy Lake in Minnesota by October 25, some 285 canoe miles distant from La Pointe. A few of the easternmost tribes refused to travel that far with winter approaching, but still more than 5,500 people made the journey for what was owed and promised to them.

When the people arrived at Sandy Lake, there was no government agent nor any supplies waiting for them. …

The lack of food and deteriorating conditions made the people sick, and at least 150 died from starvation, dysentery and measles.

On December 2, a partial annuity payment finally arrived, but it was only three days’ worth of food with no money to purchase any more supplies. Most of the people saw there was no use in waiting anymore and began the journey back to their homes, though some stayed behind because they were too sick to travel. With winter set in, it was a harrowing journey, and 250 more died along the way.

Note: An earlier version of this blog misidentified a member of the PUC. It is Nancy Lange.

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