Enbridge new Line 3’s dewatering plan raises hard questions
The Minnesota Department of Natural Resources (DNR) has approved a permit allowing Enbridge to increase its Line 3 trench dewatering by nearly ten fold, up to 5 billion gallons.
The Minnesota Chippewa Tribe has written Gov. Tim Walz requesting he tell the DNR to rescind the permit, “until such time as the Department consults with the White Earth Reservation and all other impacted tribes” as promised in Walz’s 2019 executive order.
“Time of of the essence,” wrote Catherine J. Chavers, President of the Minnesota Chippewa Tribe.
Line 3’s new dewatering permit raises many questions:
- Why didn’t it trigger Gov. Tim Walz’s executive order requiring meaningful consultation with Native Nations?
- Why is Enbridge requesting such a big increase in dewatering so late in construction?
- Why wasn’t there more public engagement in the process?
- What are the potential environmental harms from increased dewatering?
The Enbridge Line 3 tar sands pipeline is being buried in water-laden country. More than one-fifth of the entire route — 78 miles — runs through wetlands. The pipeline also crosses more than 200 streams and other waterbodies.
It’s tough to dig a pipeline trench and bury a pipeline when the trench fills with water as soon as you start digging.
This is another way of saying the state approved a really bad pipeline route. Minnesota Rule 6135.1100 says pipeline routes should avoid “wetlands, highly erodible soils and areas with high water tables, especially if construction requires excavation.”
So much for rules.
In December, the DNR issued Enbridge a permit to pump up to 511 million gallons for trench dewatering. On June 4, the DNR authorized Enbridge to dewater up to 5 billion gallons.
For comparison, the Twin Cities area uses approximately 350 million gallons of water a day from public water systems for eating, drinking, cleaning and watering lawns. The Enbridge dewatering plan is equivalent to about two weeks of Twin Cities residential water use.
Q: The Governor’s executive order from 2019 promised “meaningful consultation” with tribes on issues that affect them. Did that happen with Line 3’s dewatering plan?
A: No. The state has engaged in little if any meaningful consultation with tribes on the Line 3 project.
Randall Doneen, a DNR Section Manager, said the DNR sent an email to all the Minnesota Chippewa tribes and explained the proposed amendment. They scheduled a follow-up conference call. Representatives from White Earth, Fon du Lac, Mille Lacs and the Minnesota Chippewa Tribe participated. The DNR answered follow up questions.
Asked whether that process qualified as “meaningful consultation” under the Governor’s executive order, Randall made a distinction.
“Consultation is a government to government thing,” he said. “This was a staff coordination effort.”
The Governor’s executive order states the following:
As appropriate, and at the earliest opportunity, each [state] agency will develop and maintain ongoing consultation with the Minnesota Tribal Nations related to each area where the agency’s work intersects with Minnesota Tribal Nations.
Agencies must consider the input gathered from tribal consultation into their decision-making processes, with the goal of achieving mutually beneficial solutions.Executive Order 19-24
It doesn’t appear that consultation happened on the dewatering permit change, an issue of significant importance to Native Nations.
Q: Why did Enbridge request such a large dewatering increase?
A: As initially planned, Enbridge workers put a sump pump in the bottom of the trench to dewater it. They pumped the water into a temporary stormwater pond. It got filtered and treated before returning to the ground.
Pumping out of the trench produces particularly muddy water, which isn’t ideal.
Enbridge is going to a new dewatering process called a “well point system.” Workers will sink a series of wells near the pipeline and pump out water, lowering the local water table and drying out the trench. “It makes a big difference in the water quality, as it doesn’t have near as much sediment in it, but it does end up pumping more water,” Doneen said.
The well point dewatering system is a big reason for Enbridge’s substantial dewatering increase.
Still, Enbridge miscalculated its dewatering needs. Prior to the June 4 permit, Enbridge was approaching is 511 million gallon cap. It had dewatered something on the order of the “high 400″ millions” gallons, Doneen said.
Q: Why change plans so late in construction?
A: Enbridge’s new dewatering request “is due to the encountering of more groundwater than originally anticipated,” a DNR report states.
That’s a stunning admission. Enbridge knew Line 3 was going through areas with higher water tables. Enbridge has lots of money to hire top scientists to assess these issues.
Yet the company whiffed on it dewatering estimate.
It looks like a bait and switch. Start with a low request. Get the permit. Then ask for the increase.
Doneen said he understood the concern, but added if Enbridge had started by requesting the 5 billion gallon dewatering permit, he didn’t think the result would have changed.
That’s little comfort. From what I’ve seen, Minnesota’s regulatory system — the Public Utilities Commission, the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency (MPCA), the DNR, and even the Governor — treats Enbridge with undue deference and trust and builds in little accountability.
The state showed a lack of transparency on a permit for such a controversial project. The public and the tribes deserved better engagement and the opportunity to critique the plan.
Laura Triplett, an associate professor of geology and environmental studies at Gustavus Adolphus College, told MPR that Enbridge’s dewatering request “’demonstrates a fundamental misunderstanding’ of the region where the pipeline is being built.”
“I think DNR should not have approved this without a much deeper inquiry into what else Enbridge doesn’t understand about Minnesota’s water,” she said.
Click here for Triplett’s dewatering critique and fact sheet.
Q: What are dewatering’s potential harms?
A: The Minnesota Chippewa Tribe explained its concerns in the letter to Walz:
Given the high temperatures and the low precipitation this season, northern Minnesota is in a moderate drought. Water levels are already dangerously low and displacing this many gallons of water will undoubtedly have a detrimental impact on our wild rice, which is our most sacred food.Catherine J. Chavers, President, Minnesota Chippewa Tribe
Enbridge and the DNR downplayed such risks. The DNR doesn’t have concerns about temporary, localized water table draw down, Doneen said. The water is just taken out of the ground for a couple of days then filtered back in.
The big concern the DNR and MPCA have is excessive flooding from the dewatering discharge in small depressional wetlands, Doneen said. They can be more sensitive to water increases.
These small wetlands have adapted to dry periods, he said. “Four inches of water in a couple of hours? That would be bad. That is what we are trying to avoid.”
The trench sump pumps were permitted to dewater at a rate up to 800 gallons per minute. The new well point system is authorized to dewater up to 1,500 gallons per minute.
Enbridge has had some flooding incidents under the current in-trench dewatering plan.
“We have had a few of these construction stormwater ponds fail,” Doneen said. “That is really what stimulated our concern for the additional monitoring of these [new dewatering plans], to make sure they have appropriate, qualified staff watching these things at all times, he said.
The DNR has worked with Enbridge to identify vulnerable wetlands and required better perimeter control on the holding ponds, Doneen said.
Christy Dolph, a University of Minnesota research scientist, raised concerns that we don’t currently know all the harms that dewatering could create.
Scientists have said for years that the DNR and MPCA were underestimating Line 3’s wetland impacts, she said.
“In fact, even though Minnesota DNR has granted the new permits for dewatering – and I would add, granted them with no public input and no consultation with tribes – the agency still hasn’t done the work to understand the impact this huge increase in water appropriation will have on sensitive waters in the region.”