Near fatal Line 3 accident seems to have been avoidable

Regulators shouldn’t have allowed a pipeline in this area

On Saturday, Feb. 6, a piece of heavy excavating equipment used for the Enbridge Line 3 pipeline corridor broke through the ice in Hubbard County. The operator was trapped in freezing cold water which nearly filled his enclosed cab. He was unable to exit and became hypthermic. A dramatic rescue followed, including the destruction of a beaver dam to drop the water level. The operator survived.

The incident occurred near a wetland by LaSalle Creek in an area known as the LaSalle Valley, located between Itasca State Park and the Mississippi Headwaters.

This problem was foreseeable.

Digging deeper into the story raises questions about whether state regulators were paying enough attention when they approved Line 3’s route through the valley.

A pristine area at risk

During the Line 3 debate, the Friends of the Headwaters told state regulators the LaSalle Valley was the wrong choice for a crude oil pipeline. “This is not only a bad location with respect to possible oil releases during the project life, but construction impacts will likely be very severe,” it wrote the state back in 2017.

The Friends of the Headwaters was one of the intervening parties opposing Line 3 before the Minnesota Public Utilities Commission (PUC). Paul Stolen, a consultant for the Friends and a former Minnesota Department of Natural Resources (DNR) biologist, called this area “the worst location for a pipeline installation he has seen in Minnesota and Montana in his years of pipeline experience.” (See this MPR story where Stolen discusses this area’s vulnerability.)

Image: From a U.S. District Court, District of Columbia, filing by Laura Triplett seeking a stay on Line 3 construction.

Richard Smith, President of Friends of the Headwaters, explained the area’s unique geography in an email to Healing Minnesota Stories:

The LaSalle is a glacial tunnel valley with steep sides over 100 feet higher than the valley bottom. Large springs are found at the bottom of the ridges. The springs are so prominent that wetlands actually grow up the slopes in some locations. The valley floor is filled with deep, water-saturated peat through which the creek flows. Portions of the creek are trout waters.

Three pristine lakes are downstream of the proposed route. LaSalle Lake is the second deepest in Minnesota. This landscape, wetlands, creek and lakes have been declared a unique and important natural resource, worthy of Minnesota’s significant investment in the adjacent LaSalle Scientific and Natural Area and the LaSalle Lake State Recreation Area, both at risk from the Line 3 tar sands pipeline

Richard Smith, President, Friends of the Headwaters

Minnesota spent $8.5 million to buy and protect land around Big LaSalle Lake.

The stretch of the new Line 3 corridor that passes through the LaSalle Valley runs parallel to the existing Koch MinnCan pipeline corridor. (The MinnCan line continues south, carrying crude oil to the Flint Hills refinery in Rosemont and to the St. Paul Park refinery. Line 3 eventually turns east to Duluth/Superior. (See map below.)

MinnCan had problems in the LaSalle Creek area in the winter of 2008; its experience should have been a warning to both Enbridge and state regulators.

Wetlands don’t freeze here

Orange line indicates the Line 3 route. The LaSalle Creek crossing is represented by the most southerly of the blue circles. Map: Watch the Line on Google Maps.

Friends of the Headwaters had noted a unique feature about wetlands in this area in its 2017 filing: “The wetland surface does not freeze in winter at this location because of groundwater upwelling.”

Back in the winter of 2008, MinnCan workers were doing Horizontal Directional Drilling for a pipeline, trying to bore a tunnel 25 feet under LaSalle Creek. This process required the use of drilling mud, a drilling aid.

A “frac-out” occurred, the term used when drilling mud escapes from the tunnel. In this case, the mud got into LaSalle Creek and surrounding wetlands. MinnCan had to clean it up, the Friends filing said.

Base map: Minnesota House Research

However, heavy equipment was of limited use in clean-up efforts (even in winter) because the wetland soils were so water saturated. “Some recovery operations had to be accomplished by hand work,” the Friends wrote.

Extent of wetland damage unclear

Enbridge downplayed any wetland damage from the Feb. 6 incident.

My friend Rita Chamblin submitted a series of questions to Enbridge about the sunken equipment, including “What damage did the accident and the resulting rescue do to the wetlands, both in and outside of your easement?”

Jason Risdall, Enbridge’s manager of regulatory affairs and point person on complaints, evaded the question:

The equipment involved in the accident on Saturday, February 6 was subsequently removed from the wetland. This incident and any associated ground disturbance occurred within the Project’s permitted workspace and no fluids were released from the equipment during the accident or during the equipment removal process.

Jason Risdall
File: Line 3 construction site. Photo: Watch the Line.

Pause. Think of the last time you got your boot stuck deep in the mud. You try hard to pull it out, but there’s lots of resistance. You pull and pull. Eventually, there’s a large sucking sound and your boot oozes out covered in mud, leaving a boot-shaped hole, which slowly fills in. I’m imagining the equipment rescue looked something like that, only bigger.

Removing the sunken machinery would have required more equipment in the wetland and caused more disruption.

Rita’s question deserved a better answer.

Rita also asked if the equipment operator was from South Carolina, which Risdall again sidestepped.

The worker involved in the incident had extensive experience working with the piece of equipment and previously worked for the clearing contractor. Enbridge’s contractors hire many qualified and experienced local area workers, but also hire qualified and experienced workers from outside the area to meet the labor needs for the project.

Perhaps the equipment worker was extremely qualified. But was the equipment operator informed that LaSalle Valley wetlands don’t freeze in winter?

Healing Minnesota Stories emailed Enbridge this morning, asking if the company was aware of this issue, and if the equipment operator was informed. No response yet. I’ll update the blog when I receive it.

Inadequate environmental review

LaSalle Creek in the LaSalle Scientific and Natural Area. Photo: Kelly Randall, MN DNR

Friends of the Headwaters tried but failed to get state regulators to pay close attention to the LaSalle Valley’s unique issues as part of the Line 3 environmental impact statement (EIS), Smith said.

The Minnesota Department of Commerce’s division of Energy Environmental Review and Analysis was the lead agency for the Line 3 EIS. It seems odd that Commerce was the lead, not the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency (MPCA), the state’s leading environmental protection agency. The MPCA and DNR had roles in the EIS, but secondary roles.

The LaSalle Valley and LaSalle Creek got scant attention in the Commerce-led EIS. In a brief discussion of Line 3’s LaSalle Creek crossing, it says:

Woody vegetation would be removed from the construction work area during construction and, depending on the crossing method used, the habitat quality of LaSalle Creek adjacent to the crossing location may be reduced. The crossing of LaSalle Creek has the potential to introduce invasive species and result in the loss of habitat and reduction of habitat quality.

Line 3 EIS, Chapter 6

It follows with the not-so-reassuring statement about Enbridge using “best management practices” and impacts being short term.

The EIS makes no mention of how Line 3 construction might affect the valley’s unique groundwater system, or how the area’s unique groundwater system might affect Line 3 construction.

MPCA, DNR were aware of route problems

The DNR had proposed adjusting Line 3’s route to change the spot where the pipeline crossed LaSalle Creek. Enbridge’s proposed crossing is distant from any roads, the DNR said. It proposed moving the crossing near a road to reduce response time should there be an oil spill. The DNR’s alternative also moved the LaSalle Creek crossing further upstream from Big LaSalle Lake.

La Salle Creek in the LaSalle Scientific and Natural Area. Photo: Peggy Booth, MN DNR

Ultimately, the PUC rejected the change, because it would have moved Line 3 next to Itasca State Park as well as several homes.

The PUC was choosing between two bad options. It approved a pipeline which, if it spills at LaSalle Creek, would create an ugly mess in pristine waters that are difficult to get to, difficult to clean up, and close to Big LaSalle Lake.

In 2014, the MPCA analyzed the Sandpiper pipeline proposal that would have run along the same route as Line 3’s through the LaSalle Creek area, according to an MPR story. (Sandpiper was eventually scuttled.) At the time, the MPCA said of this route: “The environmental damage that would occur as a result of a leak at this location could be massive, and the obstacles to containing the leak or performing clean-up activities could be insurmountable.”

The MPCA issued Line 3’s water crossing permit last year in apparent contradiction to this previous statement, and its mission statement: “to protect and improve the environment and human health.”

In its final certification for Line 3, the agency wrote: “degradation of high quality waters is unavoidable.”

2 thoughts on “Near fatal Line 3 accident seems to have been avoidable

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