On Dec. 2, the day after Enbridge started construction of its Line 3 pipeline, the company updated its COVID Preparedness Plan with state regulators.
The plan was part of a compliance filing for Line 3’s Route Permit, approved by the Minnesota Public Utilities Commission (PUC).
The plan seemed deficient, lacking transparency and enforcement. Healing Minnesota Stories wrote the PUC to ask why it didn’t require a stronger plan.
PUC Executive Secretary Will Seuffert wrote back: “the Commission did not require Enbridge to file any plans related to COVID-19, and did not approve the COVID-19 prevention plan.”
It was a surprising answer and reflected my misunderstanding of the PUC process. The fact that Enbridge submitted its COVID plan as part of a compliance filing gave it the air of something official and state approved. It was not.
This blog has written before about the concerns Native Americans have about the pandemic. In Minnesota, they have died at two-and-a-half times the rate of white people, according to State Health Department data. The new Line 3 route runs near the White Earth and Red Lake nations and through the Fond du Lac reservation.
The White Earth and Red Nations have raised concerns about how the influx of out-of-state workers for the pipeline construction project could increase the risk of COVID-19 spread to their communities. They tried unsuccessfully to get the PUC, then the courts, to order a construction delay because of the pandemic.
At least one PUC Commissioner relied on Enbridge’s plan to reject the request for a stay in construction. At a Dec. 4 PUC meeting, Commissioner Valerie Means said Enbridge had a detailed COVID-19 plan to prevent exposure and respond to infections: “Construction workers are already working on this project, and in my view, this is beneficial for Minnesota’s economy, especially during the pandemic.”
In Enbridge’s 17-page COVID Preparedness Plan, the company commits to a number of standard protocols. Workers must keep a six-foot social distance, wear masks outdoors when they can’t social distance, and sanitize their hands when entering and exiting spaces with high-touch surfaces (doors, equipment, etc.)
Enbridge expects its workers and contractors to follow state guidelines and company policies during off-work hours to prevent COVID spread to the community at large.
It’s a detailed document, but not without significant flaws and loopholes.
Enbridge isn’t required to report COVID infection data to the state.
One of the plan’s stated objectives is to set realistic compliance goals. It doesn’t say what those goals are, just that it will set them.
Similarly, the plan “commits to establishing compliance metrics.” It doesn’t say what the metrics are, or whether they will be public.
The sanctions seem lax. A worker needs to have at least four violations before losing any work time.
There are no sanctions on Enbridge as a company if it fails to meet its goals and metrics.
In the PUC’s response to questions about COVID and Line 3, Seuffert writes that the governor’s office and the Minnesota Health Department are responsible for public health issues, not the PUC.
Which brings the story back to a familiar refrain.
In 2019, Gov. Tim Walz issued an executive order to expand and improve on state-tribal relations. Walz said: “This order ensures the State of Minnesota and the eleven tribes engage in true government-to-government relationships built on respect, understanding, and sovereignty. We are committed to meaningful consultation with the tribal communities in our state.”
The state failed on meaningful consultation with White Earth or Red Lake on Line 3’s COVID risks. More broadly, Walz failed to live up to his stated 2021 priorities. Line 3 will harm Indigenous rights, increase COVID risks, and create climate damage — three issues he puts in his top-five list.