PUC doesn’t have to answer for Line 3-related human trafficking problems

Nor is it going to hold Enbridge accountable for them

It took me a long time to get this through my head, but there’s no mechanism in place to hold the Minnesota Public Utilities Commission (PUC) accountable for its poor decisions, or even explain them.

I wanted the PUC’s comment about recent reports of sexual harassment and violence towards women by Line 3 workers. The PUC was warned about these risks when it permitted Line 3. Was the PUC concerned about this news? Had the PUC been in contact with Enbridge or law enforcement about these issues? Does the PUC regret putting such lax conditions in the Line 3 permits?

These seem like basic questions, the kind any state agency would feel compelled to answer.

But the PUC isn’t a state agency, it’s a “quasi-judicial” body, more like a court.

Will Seuffert, the PUC’s executive secretary wrote: “[N]either I nor any staff member can speak for any of the Commissioners, and they speak through their written orders. The agency cannot provide any explanation beyond what is included in the written orders.”

So who holds the PUC accountable?

It was warned

Healing Minnesota Stories has reported in detail on the PUC’s failure to hold Enbridge accountable around human trafficking problems. Here’s the recap.

During Line 3’s regulatory review, Enbridge promised to provide a draft Human Trafficking Prevention plan to Line 3 opponents prior to the final vote. Brent Murcia of the Youth Climate Intervenors told the PUC the day before the final vote that Enbridge had yet to provide the promised plan.

Not one of the five PUC commissioners followed up to ask Enbridge execs why they hadn’t.

The following day, the PUC approved Line 3 permits without requiring the Human Trafficking Prevention Plan. Instead, it required Enbridge to file one later.

The plan Enbridge ultimately submitted — and the PUC accepted — was terribly weak. It only required Line 3 workers to take a human trafficking prevention training.

Human Trafficking expert witness Sheila Lamb told the commissioners earlier that an education-only plan wouldn’t work. It wouldn’t “change deep-seated behaviors” for those involved in human trafficking.

Enbridge reassured the PUC that human trafficking wasn’t going to be a problem. The PUC ignored Lamb and trusted Enbridge.

Worse, the PUC’s Line 3 permit lacked any sanctions against Enbridge should problems arise. And they have.

The comparison to courts breaks down

The PUC might be a court-like entity, but there’s a big difference between it and the courts.

Courts hold people and organizations accountable for their actions. If found guilty, they go to jail or pay a fine. The court might issue an order, such as restraining orders. If people fail to comply, the court issues stiffer sanctions.

In contrast, the PUC isn’t holding Enbridge accountable for anything it put in its order approving Line 3.

The PUC’s orders have far-reaching effects, well beyond the parties who appear before it. Enbridge Line 3 runs 337 miles border-to-border in northern Minnesota. The PUC’s Line 3 decisions impact the climate, state waters and wetlands, treaty rights and all the people who live along the route.

There was little if anything in the PUC’s Line 3 order that held Enbridge accountable for the project’s potential harms.

Apparently the “quasi” in “quasi judicial” means “we hope they comply.”

Line 3 opponents are suing to reverse Line 3’s permits in the Minnesota Court of Appeals and in federal court. But the worst thing that could happen to the PUC is that it loses in court. What about the harm the PUC allowed to happen by failing to require a more robust response to the human trafficking risks?

Bottom line: The PUC won’t be held accountable for its willful ignorance of the human trafficking problem. It approved a Human Trafficking Prevention Plan that doesn’t protect women. It’s not going to publicly acknowledge its error. Nor will it offer a sign of concern for women who have suffered violence, violence it was warned about and allowed to happen through lax permitting.

Call law enforcement

In response to my human trafficking questions, PUC Executive Secretary Seuffert wrote: “The Commission does not enforce, or advise on, public safety matters that fall under the jurisdiction of law enforcement agencies.” He then offered law enforcement contacts.

Calling law enforcement won’t answer my questions. From what I can see, law enforcement is too busy lining up with Enbridge security staff to crack down on water protectors. Law enforcement is getting Enbridge money, indirectly, through the PUC’s Public Safety Escrow Account.

What I want is for the PUC to own up to the problems its allowed to happen. And no one can do that except the PUC Commissioners themselves.

One of the more troubling aspects of this issue is that the public has no way of knowing the extent of the Line 3 related human trafficking problem. When people get arrested, they don’t typically provide their employer’s name. No government agency is tracking information about Line 3’s harms, including sexual harassment and human trafficking.

I emailed Enbridge to ask if other Line 3 workers had been arrested for human trafficking. I did not get a response.

If there’s no data, people can pretend there’s no problem.

There’s no transparency. The PUC could have required Enbridge to report Line 3 worker arrests. The PUC could have added a permit condition that Enbridge would lose its permit if the project resulted in too many arrests. It did neither.

Harm has already been done. There will be no undoing it, even if the anti-Line 3 parties end up winning in court.

Where’s the accountability?

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