Regular citizens left in the dark about Line 3’s threats to wild rice

Leech Lake members harvest wild rice on Mud Lake. (Photo: U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

Wild rice is sacred food to Anishinaabe people and Minnesota’s state grain, but the state has no uniform definition of “wild rice waters.”

This creates problems when evaluating the threat to “wild rice waters” from projects such as Enbridge’s proposed Line 3 tar sands crude oil pipeline.

The proposed Line 3 route would cross 340 miles of northern Minnesota — right through the heart of wild rice country — crossing more than 200 water bodies and 75 miles of wetlands. In order to get state approvals, Enbridge needs to show it can build the pipeline through all that water and mitigate the damage to wild rice and other sensitive ecosystems.

Understanding Line 3’s threat to wild rice remains an open and troubling question. Enbridge just submitted a new application to the state for Line 3’s water crossing permit (technically called a Section 401 permit). One might think that Enbridge would want to reassure the public that wild rice would be protected under its plan. Instead, Enbridge submitted highly technical reports that make it nearly impossible for the average citizen to understand this critically important issue.

DNR wild rice map. Click here for updated Line 3 route map.

Anishinaabe bands and allies have long criticized the proposed Line 3 pipeline because of the threat pipeline construction and spills pose to wild rice. Wild rice is fragile and sensitive to contamination.

Historical data shows Minnesota’s wild rice has been decreasing in abundance, according to a Jan. 3 report by the Governor’s Task Force on Wild Rice. The state needs to do everything it can to protect wild rice, and approving Line 3 is taking us in the wrong direction.

The DNR’s 2008 report Natural Wild Rice in Minnesota explains the state’s complex wild rice regulatory structure:

No single agency or governmental entity in Minnesota assumes all of the responsibility for protecting natural wild rice. In public waters, the MNDNR [Minnesota Department of Natural Resources] takes the lead to regulate harvest and damage or removal of wild rice plants. Counties take the lead, within state statutory guidelines, to regulate shoreline development and most local recreational surface-water use. The Minnesota Pollution Control Agency [MPCA] regulates discharges to waters throughout the state; the Minnesota Department of Agriculture assumes the lead for issues involving cultivated wild rice; and the state Environmental Quality Board has the lead responsibility to coordinate, notify, and evaluate any potential release of genetically engineered wild rice. (Pages 34-35.)

The Governor’s Task Force on Wild Rice’s central recommendation “is to establish an interdisciplinary, collaborative and inclusive steering structure charged with developing recommendations for policies and practices that will enable wild rice to thrive in Minnesota.”

We’re not there yet.

Update Line 3 Route map, DNR

Anishinaabe bands have pushed back on how the state defines “wild rice waters.” The 2018 Tribal Wild Rice Task Force Report contends “all surface waters are wild rice waters and therefore no limit(s) should be applied to what constitutes or defines them.”

From a tribal view, all waters are connected and have importance. Colonization of Minnesota has changed the hydrology of the area with dams and culverts and what once were “rice waters” have changed and new areas now hold wild rice. With the continued exacerbation of climate change it is difficult to predict what waters will continue to hold rice, or what water will need to hold rice for culture and customs to continue. With that in mind, if a lake or river supports, has supported, or could support any wild rice, it is a wild rice water. We do not see any other way to define it. (Page. 27)

There are several state lists of wild rice waters:

  • The DNR tracks wild rice waters that could be harvested. A 2008 DNR report says that there were 1,286 lakes and river/stream segments that had wild rice
  • The MPCA has a comprehensive list wild rice waters, created in 2016, which has more than 2,300 wild rice water bodies listed.
  • The MPCA proposed a new rule on sulfate pollution as regards wild rice waters. This was a shorter than the MPCA’s 2016. It’s no longer valid because the MPCA pulled the rule.)

The definition of “wild rice waters” has been a contested issue in Line 3 debates. Is Enbridge using the most comprehensive list available to judge Line 3’s impact on wild rice?

The state’s Line 3 environmental impact statement used the DNR list of wild rice waters to analyze Line 3’s impacts.

For its new Line 3 water crossing permit, Enbridge used the MPCA’s 2016 wild rice list. Juli Kellner, an Enbridge spokeswoman, wrote that the MPCA list is the most comprehensive publicly available, and “allowed for the evaluation of a greater number of wild rice waters than the DNR list.”

The numbers suggest that the MPCA’s list should be the most comprehensive, yet the Line 3 analysis is confusing.

The Water Crossing Permit application Enbridge just submitted to the MPCA concludes (page 11) that its proposed Line 3 route only would cross one wild rice water, Hay Creek in the Crow Wing watershed.

Compare that to Line 3’s environmental impact statement (Chapter 6, page 6-218) that says Line 3 would cross four wild rice waterbodies: Mud Lake, Peterson Lake, Portage Lake and Unnamed Lake. It notes the proposed pipeline would cross nearly five miles of wild rice waterbodies, with nearly 400 acres of wild rice within a half mile of the pipeline’s center line.

Why, if Enbridge used the most comprehensive list available, does it come up with three fewer wild rice crossings than the environmental impact statement that used the DNR list? Was it a route change? Is it the result of differing definitions of wild rice waters? It’s confusing. There doesn’t seem to be a point person at the state to definitively answer to the question: “How many wild rice waterbodies would Line 3 cross?”

In addition to direct wild rice water crossings, the proposed Line 3 route would pass within a half mile of 17 wild rice lakes, according the environmental impact statement. And anywhere Line 3 crosses a stream, a spill poses a grave risk to any downstream wild rice waterbodies.

We know from past Enbridge submissions that it has tried to minimize Line 3’s impacts. The Administrative Law Judge’s (ALJ’s) final report on Line 3 was critical of Enbridge’s environmental analysis:

The ALJ does not find [Enbridge’s] testimony or analysis with respect to potential effects on lakes, groundwater, or wild rice waters credible or persuasive. Given the number of high quality surface, ground, and drinking water sources within or near [Applicant’s Proposed Route], the impact of an accidental release on those important resources must be considered a weighty risk in approving this Project. (Pages 237-238)

That makes me skeptical of Enbridge’s subsequent analysis of wild rice impacts. Even then, Enbridge’s most recent application to MPCA says the proposed Line 3 would have water connections to 87 wild rice waters. (Page 10)

In an earlier iteration of Enbridge’s Application to Cross Public Waters, submitted to the DNR in November 2018, the company admits it can’t meet state rules regulating pipeline routes:

… it is not feasible to adhere to all routing standards on a project of this scope and size, given northern Minnesota’s topography and environment (e.g., avoiding wetlands). Accordingly, Enbridge indicated on its application form that not all of the proposed [public water inventory] crossings comply with the environmental standards as listed in Minnesota Rules 6135.1100. (Page 22)

That state rule says pipeline routes should, among other things, avoid wetlands. Line 3’s proposed route is no minor rule violation; the proposed route would cross more than 75 miles of wetlands. Based on this issue alone, Line 3 should be a non starter.

Enbridge’s Water Crossing Permit application to the MPCA is technical and difficult to read and doesn’t offer a concise summary of Line 3’s wild rice impacts. (Here’s the application with attachments; you can read and judge for yourself.)

I don’t buy the argument that Enbridge’s application isn’t meant for the general public. The general public has been deeply invested in the pipeline debate for years and will engage in the upcoming public comment period for Line 3’s Water Crossing Permit. Technical writing can also be clear writing. I conclude, based on Enbridge’s application, that the company doesn’t want the public to understand its proposal.

Comment: It’s up to the MPCA to provide plain English explanations about the project’s risks to wild rice. The public deserves it.

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