Mother Earth: ‘Is there a doctor in the house?’

MPCA not living up to its mission to ‘protect and improve’ the environment

I’ve been thinking recently about comparisons between the medical and environmental protection professions.

The medical profession has gone through a significant patient care evolution in my lifetime. It used to be patients just did what the doctor said. If you had rheumatoid arthritis, you took the drugs the doctor told you to take, period. Today, there’s online medical resources and on-line support groups that help people understand their illnesses. People can crowdsource alternative treatments. Then can ask their doctors for more information or a different approach. It’s been a gradual transition, but the medical community is adapting.

Environmental protection professionals — those working for government regulators charged with protecting and healing Mother Earth — haven’t made a similar transition. They still seem to see themselves as the “experts.” Yet more and more ordinary people are getting knowledgeable about very technical environmental issues, such as crude oil pipeline construction and climate damage. They have become patient advocates for the planet. Yet regulatory agencies don’t seem to want to listen to or collaborate with the public who care deeply about these issues.

Consider the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency (MPCA). It’s mission is “to protect and improve the environment and human health.” That reads like the Hippocratic Oath for the care of Mother Earth.

People are pressing the MPCA with more and more questions about the decisions its making and why, whether it’s on mining, pipelines, or metal recycling operations. State regulators such as the MPCA say they welcome public engagement, yet it’s mostly lip service.

Adding to the problem, the MPCA is siding with the very extractive industries that are destroying the Earth itself.

I don’t doubt that many people working for environmental agencies are well intentioned. Yet they either fail to see industry’s hand in crafting regulatory structures that hamstring environmental protections, or they see it but the political pressure is just too great. Either way, they are complicit.

Let’s look at one small example: the frac-outs occurring during the construction of the Enbrdige Line 3 tar sands crude pipeline.

Line 3 travels 337 miles across northern Minnesota. It required clearcutting forest lands, trenching through wetlands, and crossing more than 200 water bodies. At 19 sites, Enbridge is drilling long, shallow tunnels for Line 3 under the Mississippi River and other significant waterbodies. (This is the same process the Dakota Access Pipeline used near Standing Rock that water protectors worked so hard to stop.)

The drilling process requires a special mud, a viscous fluid that lubricates and cools the drill and brings the drilled rock and soil to the surface. The drilling happens under pressure, and one risk is that the mud can be forced through cracks in the subsurface soil and pushed to the surface.

These are called frac-outs.

The MPCA has provided no transparency on frac-outs. Instead, it’s running interference for Enbridge.

Honor the Earth tweeted a drone photo earlier this week of what looked like a frac-out and the Willow River (reprinted in this blog and again, below).

Shell River drone footage.

The MPCA, usually guarded with information, was quick to fire off a tweety finger wag:

Based on Honor the Earth’s photo, it seems reasonable to suspect a Shell River frac-out. The light-colored material on the river bottom could be drilling mud. The yellow booms in the water look similar to what Enbridge has used to try to contain a frac-out. The MPCA could have provided details on what’s going on here, but didn’t.

Note to the MPCA: Misinformation happens in an information vacuum. The public shouldn’t have to keep filing information requests or calling your media relations department to figure out what’s going on around Line 3. You know lots of people care deeply about this issue. If you really cared about public engagement, you would have proactively created an information system to keep the public in the loop. There’s still time.

My friend Andy Pearson was at Camp Firelight, a site near the Mississippi headwaters where a frac-out happened. He provided this first-person narrative:

During the time we were there, Enbridge employees appeared to begin responding to a frac-out, which was confirmed by drone footage and in-person investigation by others in our group who traveled to the site via the river. An area of the marsh was totally coated in slick drilling mud, with workers pushing it around with brooms. Enbridge seemed to have vacuum trucks onsite as well, suctioning it out of the marsh. It would be a wild exaggeration to say that this process returned the marsh to a pre-frac-out level of ecological integrity. …

Enbridge initially denied that anything had happened and then backtracked and issued a statement confirming the release.

Andy Pearson

On Wednesday, the MPCA released a frac-out update:

Based on reports from both independent environmental monitors and Enbridge, there have been inadvertent releases of drilling fluid (or mud) at nine construction sites of the Enbridge Energy Line 3 pipeline project. Willow River is the only river crossing where drilling fluid entered the waterway, all others occurred near the drill entry or exit location.

The releases of drilling mud is not uncommon near the drill entry or exit points. The MPCA required that Enbridge include detailed plans on these potential incidents in its permit application and has plans in place to cleanup any spills.


Multiple problems here.

Frac-out near the Mississippi Headwater. Images: Ron Turney

The MPCA statement said there had been frac-outs at nine construction sites. That was news to many water protectors. Yet the agency didn’t name the sites or provide any other information. Were there multiple frac-outs at a given site? How big were they? Why is the MPCA keeping this information so close to the vest? This lack of transparency adds to mistrust.

The MPCA offers the opaque statement that frac-outs mostly occur near the drilling entry or exit spots and they are “not uncommon.” Is the MPCA saying these spills are inconsequential or not really a problem because they are expected?

The MPCA’s statement emphasized only one frac-out occurred in a waterway, the Willow River. That’s false. We know the frac-out near the Headwaters was in a wetland right next to the Mississippi River, not next to a drill pad as the MPCA said. Here’s some drone video footage from Ron Turney.

The MPCA described the spill using the industry-friendly term “inadvertent.” It’s a term that suggests Enbridge is blameless. Yet it could just as easily be true that Enbridge is working as fast as it can to finish the job, and has budgeted money to pay for minimal frac-out fines rather than working more slowly and carefully. (We don’t even know if Enbridge will get fined for frac-outs. The MPCA won’t comment on an ongoing investigation.)

File photo: Dawn Goodwin, RISE Coalition

Dawn Goodwin, White Earth tribal member, co-founder of the RISE Coalition, and representative of Indigenous Environmental Network, said people warned regulators that this area “was the worst possible place for a pipeline.”

“The original people of these lands know this place, with the Mississippi River in the La Salle valley, is special, and we were told in our teachings to protect it with out lives–and they’ve already contaminated it before the pipe is even installed.”

Christy Dolph, water resources scientist, was at the frac-out site and wondered where the monitors were. “If there were not water protectors on site would anyone know about this spill?” Dolph said in a media release. “When people call the MPCA there is not a ready response, the only people we saw during the spill were Enbridge workers.  It looks like there is no oversight from state agencies on the ground.”

The MPCA’s statement said it got its information from “independent environmental monitors and Enbridge.” As this blog has noted in the past, there are questions about how “independent” the “independent monitors” are. These are not regular MPCA employees. They are workers that Enbridge pays to work on behalf of the state. Enbridge selected them and trained them. Half have worked for Enbridge in the past.

A lot of people don’t trust the MPCA and its consistently pro-industry stance. Water protectors have begun collecting their own water samples at frac-out sites because they haven’t observed anyone else doing it.

These frac-outs are one small example in gigantic pile of Line 3 problems.

The MPCA’s posture makes it clear where the agency stands. It’s with Enbridge, not with its mission to protect and improve the environment.

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