Enbridge has spilled at least 10,000 gallons of drilling mud into MN streams, wetlands, and uplands, MPCA says

Enbridge has had at least 28 “frac-outs” while tunneling under Minnesota streams and wetlands to install its Line 3 tar sands pipeline. These have released between 10,000 and 13,000 gallons of “drilling mud,” according to data released by the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency (MPCA).

The drilling process requires using a special drilling mud that helps lubricate and cool the drill bit. The mud is under pressure and can get forced into subsurface soil cracks and pushed to the surface. This is called a frac-out. They can happen on land, in wetlands and in rivers and streams.

Line 3 drilling under the Mississippi River in Aitkin County resulted in the largest single spill, estimated between 6,000 and 9,000 gallons. It occurred in a wetland about a quarter-mile from the river, the MPCA said.

The information was contained in an Aug. 9 letter from MPCA Acting Commissioner Peter Tester to 32 legislators who had pressed the agency for answers on the number and volume of Line 3 frac-outs.

Enbridge had two spills at the Red Lake River, totaling 1,280 gallons. The larger of the two, 1,200 gallons, occurred 220 feet from the river and five to ten feet from a wetland. The spill migrated into the wetland, the MPCA said.

There were three separate spills near the Mississippi Headwaters totaling 160 gallons. All three occurred in wetlands. The closest spill was described as being 555 feet away from the river, the other two were listed as 880 feet from the river. That’s not consistent with water protectors’ on-site reports. The photo below suggests at least one frac-out was closer than reported.

Image shows Line 3 workers cleaning up after a frac-out very near the Mississippi River. Image: Indigenous Environmental Network.

Enbridge had five separate frac-outs while drilling under the East Savanna River, with a total estimated release of 1,450 gallons.

A number of spills were relatively small, under 100 gallons. Enbridge is required to try to clean up all spills.

Here’s a critique of Tester’s letter to legislators.

Tester repeatedly used the term “inadvertent drilling fluid releases” to describe frac-outs, a term that seems to absolve Enbridge of accountability. Put in its simplest terms, the MPCA is describing frac-outs as an “Oops.” They are not an “Oops.”

These spills could have resulted from negligence. Perhaps Enbridge isn’t being that careful as it doesn’t appear that it will face any significant sanctions.

As the group Watch the Line asked in its blog: “How many violations must occur before the agency halts construction to investigate possible negligence?”

A call to the MPCA Tuesday was not immediately returned.

Acting MPCA Commissioner Peter Tester

The MPCA has not been a reliable partner with the public in the Enbridge Line 3 review, but continues to try frame itself as a strong environmental defender.

Tester’s letter offers a lot of superfluous information, including this self-congratulatory introduction:

Throughout the Line 3 permitting process, the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency (MPCA) was committed to ensuring the 401 Water Quality Certification provided robust and comprehensive protections to Minnesota’s waters and followed all permitting requirements under the law.

Peter Tester

No, the MPCA didn’t provide comprehensive protections. Saying it did doesn’t make it true. The MPCA allowed a foreign corporation to build a 337-mile tar sands pipeline that crosses 200+ streams and rivers and 78 miles of wetlands in northern Minnesota. It approved a project that will increase climate damage, something the agency promised to address.

Tester’s letter assures the legislators that the MPCA is on the job, with details coming later.

I want to be clear that the MPCA’s 401 Water Quality Certification does not authorize any release of drilling fluid to any wetland, river or other surface water. As a result, all inadvertent releases in surface waters are under active enforcement investigation.

Peter Tester

But the MPCA says it can’t release any information to legislators or the public until the investigations are complete. By that time, Enbridge will likely have finished construction and agency preventative action will be moot.

Water protectors came upon a frac-out at the Willow River July 6. It was estimated at 80 gallons. Screen grab, Honor the Earth video.

Tester tries several different ways to put a happy face on the frac-outs.

Tester tells legislators that this underground drilling method “is generally a less degrading stream crossing.”

He writes that “the risk of inadvertent release was not, and has never been represented as, zero,” as if that somehow mitigates the problems. We’re talking at least 28 frac-outs, not two or three.

Tester continues:

Independent environmental monitors, who report directly to state agencies, are required to be onsite at all active HDD crossings, and are present at all release sites to oversee containment and cleanup response activities.

Peter Tester

This isn’t reassuring. The only consistent eyes and ears the MPCA has on the ground are these Independent Environmental Monitors. They work for the agency on paper but were selected, trained, and paid for by Enbridge. See our previous blog on Independent Environmental Monitors.

There’s confusion about whether the drilling mud contains toxins

Enbridge claims the drilling mud is non-toxic, but Christy Dolph of Science for the People says we don’t know for sure. Responding to an Enbridge tweet criticizing her analysis, she responded:

I literally reported what’s in the data safety sheets for Enbridge’s drilling fluid, that: 1) the formula is trade secret so we can’t assess its toxicity, 2) it’s listed as a skin & respiratory irritant. Scientific lit also shows drilling muds can be toxic to plants and animals

Christy Dolph

In closing, Walz again shows his indifference to Line 3’s impacts

Theo Keith, political reporter for Fox 9 News, provided this tweet Tuesday:

Walz says he’s “comfortable” with the @MnPCA’s regulatory oversight of #Line3 despite releases of drilling fluid along the construction route, says “it’s healthy that there is scrutiny.”

Theo Keith

Yes, governor, it’s healthy to have scrutiny. Unfortunately, there has been little on this project. Saying there’s scrutiny does not make it so.

Note: An earlier version of this blog misidentified Mr. Tester’s first name. It’s Peter.

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