The Minnesota Department of Natural Resources (DNR) is ordering Enbridge to pay up to $3.3 million in mitigation, restoration and a fine for violating a Line 3 pipeline construction permit.
“Enbridge’s actions are clear violations of state law and also of public trust,” the DNR said in a statement. “This never should have happened, and we are holding the company fully accountable.”
Line 3 workers busted through an aquifer lining in a sensitive ecosystem, leading to a discharge of more than 24 million gallons of water and unknown long-term damage to the environment.
It’s $3.3 million bill to Enbridge is pathetically weak, and doesn’t represent accountability.
The Line 3 section in question runs through a calcareous fen next to Enbridge’s Clearbrook Terminal, according to the DNR’s Sept. 16 “Restoration and Replacement Order.” A fen is “a unique type of wetland, with stringent statutory protections, that relies upon upwelling of mineral rich groundwater to thrive.”
The DNR had approved Enbridge’s plans to dig an eight- to ten-foot deep trench in the area, avoiding the artesian aquifer cap. Instead, it trenched 18 feet deep. (It also drove sheet piling 28 feet into the ground.) The work broke through the cap, releasing millions of gallons of water in violation of its permit.
It defies logic to think this was an accident. If it were an accident, one would think the company would have reported it right away and tried to fix it right away.
It did neither.
The problem started around Jan. 21. The DNR didn’t learn about the violation until June 15, nearly a five month delay.
How could that happen?
For one, the DNR had none of its permanent, full-time staff in the field monitoring the work. It relied on “Independent Environmental Monitors.”
Recall from previous blogs that the Minnesota Public Utilities Commission (PUC) approved the plan to create these independent monitors, a plan begging for problems.
Enbridge funded the independent monitors, but they were to report directly to state agencies such as the DNR.
The PUC allowed Enbridge to both select and train the independent monitors. As reported earlier, about half of them had worked for Enbridge in the past (and might want to work for the company in the future) raising questions about their “independence.”
The independent monitors were no fail safe in reporting this permit violation.
Though the independent monitors “described unmanageable dewatering conditions in their reports to the State agencies, they did not identify the problem as uncontrolled flow or a breach of the artesian aquifer confining layer,” the DNR’s order said.
It wasn’t until a June 15 meeting between the independent monitors and DNR staff where the issue of an “uncontrolled flow” at the Clearbrook Terminal came up.
From the DNR’s side, it’s disappointing that earlier reports of “unmanageable dewatering conditions” didn’t get more attention.
As for Enbridge, it knew well the extent of public opposition to Line 3. The company had to know by the massive amounts of water released from the fen that 1) it was violating its permit, and 2) if it became public, there would be political backlash.
To Enbridge’s great advantage, the public was in the dark until this month, after work on Line 3 is almost finished.
Healing Minnesota Stories submitted an information request to the state for all reports submitted by independent monitors marked “unacceptable.” We received all reports submitted through April. None of them mentioned the damaged fen near the Clearbrook Terminal.
Now, about that $3.3 million Enbridge is supposed to pay in mitigation, restoration, and a fine.
Enbridge estimated Line 3’s U.S. section would cost $4 billion. (Almost all of that is in Minnesota.) So $3.3 million in mitigation and penalties is less than 0.1 percent of the project’s cost.
Most of that $3.3 million is for clean up and mitigation, something Enbridge has to do with all of its Line 3 work.
The only fine Enbridge has to pay is $20,000, the maximum allowed by law.
This is part of our regulatory system’s failure. If the maximum fine a large corporation has to pay for permit violation like this is $20,000 it will never be a deterrent, just a cost of doing business.
According to the DNR’s Administrative Penalty Order, Enbridge’s violations “represent a severe potential for harm,” adding “Enbridge failed to report the incident and take timely action to stop the uncontrolled flow.”
Fine: $20,000. Full accountability? I think not.
According to MPR, the DNR also referred the matter to the Clearwater County attorney for possible misdemeanor criminal charges.
For comparison, water protectors have faced misdemeanor and gross misdemeanor charges for trespassing on Enbridge’s easement. So the criminal penalties for water protectors are the same or worse than those that might be given to a company that by all appearances willfully violated its permit and did significant environmental damage.
Don’t expect the zip ties or a night in jail for Enbridge officials.
A Post Script on media coverage:
Both MPR and the Star Tribune dutifully called Enbridge for a comment. Both stories cited an Enbridge spokesperson saying that the company “shares a strong desire to protect Minnesota waters and the environment.”
How do you print that, as if it actually means something?
Consider this hypothetical news story. A beefy man walks up to an older man in downtown Minneapolis and, unprovoked, punches the stranger in the face, breaking his nose and jaw and sending him to the hospital.
A reporter asks the assailant why he did it, and the man says: “Hey, I’m just a non-violent person working for world peace.”
Does the reporter uncritically quote such obvious nonsense?
Enbridge just punched our environment in the face and broke its nose, and it wants us to believe it cares about the environment.
Enbridge’s goal is to make a profit, period. It will protect the environment only to the extent it needs to, to keep doing business in Minnesota.
It will keep punching the environment in the nose until state regulators say: “No more.”