Water protectors highlight Willow Creek frac-out, and the out-of-whackness of state Line 3 regulators and law enforcement

A government-Enbridge alliance is doing all it can to block Minnesota citizens from observing and critiquing the construction of Enbridge Line 3 tar sands pipeline.

Tania Aubid, Winona LaDuke, Shanai Matteson and other water protectors arrived around 7 a.m. this morning at the site where Enbridge is drilling a tunnel for Line 3 under the Willow River in Aitkin County. The water protectors found what appeared to be a “frac-out,” the release of pipeline drilling mud into the river.

The state’s response focused more on trying to intimidate the water protectors for their activism than addressing the frac-out, Matteson said.

It’s a sign of the state’s upside down values. It raises questions about the state’s ability and interest in protecting the environment for future generations and who state agencies are working for.

Photo: Enbridge Attachment M

The Willow River passes through forested wetlands in the Savanna State Forest. Enbridge cleared trees and put construction mats in the wetlands. It brought in large horizontal directional drilling (HDD) equipment to bore under the river. Once drilled, equipment pulls the string of welded pipeline through the tunnel.

The HDD process requires drilling mud, a viscous fluid that lubricates and cools the drill bit and brings the drilled rock and soil to the surface.

One risk is that the mud can be pressured into cracks in the soil and finally get pushed to the surface. That’s a frac-out.

Water protectors arrived and saw what appeared to be a frac-out on the river bottom. The water felt warm. The frac-out was about the size of a car, and “actively bubbling up and flowing downstream.” (Video here.)

According to plans Enbridge submitted to the PUC, workers need to immediately stop all drilling when a frac-out occurs. Crew members are to contain the spill downstream from the release. Before resuming drilling, Enbridge needs to notify the appropriate agencies to assess containment and recovery measures, and its ability to address future releases.

Since the previous day had been a holiday, it’s unclear how long the frac-out had been going, Matteson said. There were signs that Line 3 worker were aware of the frac-out. There was a company john boat near the frac-out site. There was one boom set up across the channel, but nothing else to contain the spill, and no staff there.

“Law enforcement was watching us and videotaping us,” Matteson said. “Nobody was taking water samples and no one was down by the water.”

Matteson was calling friends around the state trying to ramp up pressure on state agencies to respond. She would eventually collected her own water sample.


Matteson points to the suspected frac-out. Screengrab from Honor the Earth video.

Public efforts to monitor Line 3 construction and construction problems have been challenging.

The Minnesota Public Utilities Commission (PUC) inserted language in Line 3’s Route permit that was supposed to protect the public’s right to observe:

[Enbridge’s] contractors and assigns shall respect the rights of the public to legally exercise their Constitutional rights without interference by the Permittee unless determined to be a public safety concern. The Permittee, the Permittee’s contractors and assigns will not participate in counterinsurgency tactics or misinformation campaigns to interfere with the rights of the public to legally exercise their Constitutional rights.

Line 3 Route Permit, page 26

I haven’t heard of citizen monitors having run-ins with Enbridge security. Enbridge security simply calls calls 9-1-1 and local law enforcement responds quickly. Though not universally true, to a large extent local law enforcement has become Enbridge’s private security.

Here’s how it happened. The PUC established a Public Safety Escrow Account that Enbridge funds to reimburse local law enforcement for Line 3-related security. While a third-party manager handles the reimbursements, everyone knows Enbridge is paying for it. Monitoring Line 3 is a revenue source for some Sheriff’s departments.

Some citizen monitors have reported being followed and feeling intimidated by local law enforcement while they were observing Line 3 construction from a public right of way, or when traveling from observation point to observation point.

Adding to problems, state of Minnesota regulators have abdicated their Line 3 oversight roles. The Minnesota Pollution Control Agency (MPCA) and Department of Natural Resources (DNR) staffs don’t have a regular presence at Line 3 construction sites.

The PUC approved a plan where Enbridge selects and trains “independent environmental monitors” to be state agency proxies. These independent monitors work for agencies in theory, but Enbridge pays their salaries through a third-party system. Half of the independent monitors have worked for Enbridge in the past, raising questions about their “independence.”

Tania Aubid (front) at Willow River this morning.

At the Willow River, Matteson said the only DNR staff she saw were conservation officers acting in a law enforcement capacity.

“They are not using DNR staff to monitor these work sites to know if [Enbridge is] violating permit conditions,” she said. They use conservation officers “to intimidate people away from these sites, threatening people with trespass even though we know we are on public right of way.”

On state lands, the DNR has created an “exclusion zone” effectively doubling Enbridge’s easement, Matteson said. People can get cited for trespass in DNR exclusion zone, making it harder for citizens to observe construction activities.

There are 19 different HDD sites, crossing 21 water bodies. As an additional burden, there’s no public information on when these drilling operations will happen.

In the case of Willow River, it’s in a remote spot and no one would see it unless they made an effort to check every day.

The state needs to let the public know when and where HDD is happening.

If no one had been at the Willow River today, what kind of response would happen? Would the public ever know about it? Would the response have been slower?

“They are putting a lot of burden on ordinary folks to be eyes on the ground,” Matteson said. “Who else is holding them accountable?“

2 thoughts on “Water protectors highlight Willow Creek frac-out, and the out-of-whackness of state Line 3 regulators and law enforcement

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