Minnesota’s environmental watchdog approves environmentally damaging project

No bark. No bite. MPCA rolls over, approves Enbridge Line 3 permit

Agency uses PR spin to justify its flawed decision.

As expected, the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency (MPCA) today approved a water crossing permit for the Enbridge Line 3 tar sands pipeline through northern Minnesota.

Enbridge is expected to begin construction sometime this month.

Gov. Tim Walz and MPCA Commissioner Laura Bishop talk a good game about addressing climate change and environmental justice. This Line 3 decision makes clear they don’t live up to their promises.

The MPCA’s mission is “to protect and improve the environment and human health.” The Line 3 project does neither.

To recap, Line 3 would:

  • Increase climate damage by $287 billion over the next three decades.
  • Trench through more than 350 miles of Northern Minnesota, crossing 78 miles of wetlands and more than 200 water bodies.
  • Ignore treaty rights.
  • Bring a large number of out-of-state workers to Northern Minnesota at a time that the coronavirus is spiking.
  • Disproportionately harm Native American communities, with future oil spills threatening wild rice waters.
New Line 3 route.

In approving Enbridge Line 3, the MPCA chose to ignore its climate damage, the impact of future oil spills, and treaty rights. It ignored the fact that the Minnesota Department of Commerce is in court right now trying to reverse Line 3 permits because it concluded Enbridge failed to prove the new pipeline was needed.

The MPCA tried to hide its irresponsible decision by praising itself, apparently thinking people wouldn’t figure it out. In its media release, the MPCA proclaims it used “stringent” water quality standards in approving Line 3’s water crossing permit.

Some of the stringent conditions the MPCA’s permit imposes include requiring Enbridge to use pollution-free sand in its sandbags, prohibiting Enbridge from using salt deicing products, and imposing seasonal construction bans near wild rice waters.

While these and other conditions are well and good, they are relatively small and distract from the larger harm.

A doctor could follow stringent medical procedures and amputate a perfectly healthy arm. That doesn’t make cutting off a healthy arm a good decision. Likewise, the MPCA can impose various best practice requirements for a project that should never be approved.

Laura Bishop, MPCA Commissioner, failed to live up to the agency’s mission.

The MPCA boasts that its Line 3 permit guarantees “stream restoration and enhancements.”

The MPCA is trying to take credit for “enhancing” state waters while in reality its allowing them to be damaged. Allowing a company to dig a trench border-to-border across the state neither protects nor enhances the state’s waterst. At best, the agency could argue it’s trying to minimize the damage.

Its ludicrous for the agency to try to take credit for stream “enhancements.”

The MPCA claims its permit is “protecting sensitive and wild rice waters.”

No, it’s not. It’s allowing damage to be done to 79 miles of wetlands and 200+ water bodies. That’s not “protection.” Enbridge is going to lay large wooden mats in the wetlands so its heavy equipment doesn’t sink into a bog up to its axles. It’s weighing down pipes and jiggling them back and forth until they sink in the wetlands. Again, at best, the MPCA’s permit is reducing the harm. It is not preventing harm.

The MPCA’s argument seems to boil down to this. If was just up to Enbridge, the project would do significant damage. The MPCA permit reduces the damage.

The MPCA’s position would be like a hospital administrator allowing a doctor to amputate a perfectly healthy arm, and saying she “protected” the patient because the doctor wanted to cut off both arms. Somehow that doesn’t feel like protection.

The MPCA pats itself on the back, saying it’s “incorporating the public’s feedback for stronger protections.”

Just because the public had a chance to comment doesn’t mean it affected the outcome.

The MPCA undermined much of the public comment because it refused to consider Line 3’s climate damage and future oil spills. The agency restricted the discussion so much that it tuned out much of the public’s valid comments.

Lastly, the MPCA takes credit for “ensuring” an independent review of the project. According to its media release:

Enbridge must pay for 24 independent, third-party environmental monitors for the project who must report directly to, and be under the control of, the MPCA and other resource agencies. These monitors will ensure the regulatory requirements in the 401 certification and permits are followed throughout the construction of the project.

MPCA

This statement is deceptive. The “independent monitors” were part of Enbridge’s Environmental Monitor Control Plan, filed with the Minnesota Public Utilities Commission (PUC) in December, 2019, nearly a year ago. It didn’t come out of the MPCA’s water crossing permit deliberations.

Further, these “Independent Monitors” are nothing to brag about. The word “independent” is a stretch.

According to Enbridge’s Independent Environmental Monitor staffing plan, October 2020, Enbridge selects the “independent” monitors from a pool of candidates from around the country. Preference goes to “candidates who have worked as environmental inspectors or independent monitors in Minnesota previously and on energy sector projects.”

Enbridge then gives their preferred candidates’ resumes to the agencies for their review and approval.

It seems Enbridge would have an incentive to avoid recommending someone who they thought would aggressively enforce the rules. And while it’s a third-party payment, the monitors must know Enbridge is paying their salaries.

Once the monitors are hired, Enbridge also trains them instead of state regulators. According to its Independent Environmental Monitor Staffing Plan, training will be provided by Enbridge’s Project Safety Manager, and its Environemental Protection Manager, its Environmental Execution/Compliance Manager, and various resource specialists, along with a point person from the state agency.

The most recent version of Enbridge’s plan gives monitors the authority “to order the halt of a specific non-compliance activity.” That’s a good change from an earlier version, which didn’t give them that authority.

The MPCA has some skilled fiction writers on staff. Their media release on approving Line 3’s water crossing permits makes it sound like building Line 3 would “protect” and “enhance” the environment.

The agency let down the public when it approved Line 3. It made things worse by thinking the public would fall for its PR puffery.

[This blog was updated on March 14, 2021 with information from Enbridge’s Independent Environmental Monitor staffing plan, October 2020.]

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