Minnesotans like to think we are a good government state, with sunshine laws and the ability to file State Data Practices Act requests to obtain public documents.
These laws are well and good, but they don’t replace state agencies’ responsibilities to proactively publish information they know to be of broad public interest.
The Enbridge Line 3 tar sands pipeline provides a number of examples where state agencies have failed at information sharing.
Examples follow from the Minnesota Pollution Agency (MPCA), the Minnesota Public Utilities Commission (PUC) and the Department of Natural Resources (DNR).
The MPCA failed to keep the public in the loop about Enbridge Line 3 construction damage from frac outs. These occurred when Enbridge drilled pipeline tunnels under rivers and wetlands. Sometimes, drilling fluid escaped from the bore hole and was forced to the surface, a slurry of clay and unknown toxic additives.
These frac outs violated Line 3 permits. Because of Line 3’s remote location, they could happen away from public view.
The MPCA knew these fract outs were of great public interest, but wasn’t forthcoming with information about how many there were and where.
More than 30 legislators eventually wrote the MPCA seeking answers. It offered this toned-down criticism of the agency’s reluctance to share information broadly.
Your transparency throughout this process is instrumental in addressing these incidents and enforcement violations. To date, the public has had access to information only through social media posts, Enbridge’s press releases and individual conversations or email exchanges with your staff.Legislators’ letter to MPCA
It shouldn’t take so much time and effort to get this kind of information.
Even now, there appears to be remaining frac-out problems near the Mississippi Headwaters where Enbridge bored under the river. Enbridge has since removed its equipment, but photos taken several days ago by Anishinaabe artist and photographer Ron Turney of the Indigenous Environmental Network appear to show damage from frac outs.
I reached out Wednesday to the MPCA for information. Do they now about it? Is it a frac out? If so, do they have a plan?
So far, no response.
The PUC has been slow to release expenditure information about the Line 3 Public Safety Escrow Account, given the level of public interest.
Enbridge pays into the Escrow Account to reimburse law enforcement agencies for Line 3-related expenses. It’s been controversial. Enbridge is funding law enforcement and frequently coordinating with them. So far, law enforcement agencies have received nearly $2 million. That kind of funding builds bias into public safety decisions.
I’ve filed three Data Practices requests on the Escrow Account and know of others who have. It typically takes several weeks to get a reply. Why not just post the information online, at least a summary, and update it weekly or monthly? It would make it widely available and save the PUC the work of responding to individual information requests.
The DNR kept Native Nations and the public in the dark about a massive dewatering increase it proved for Line 3 construction. (In wet areas, Enbridge needed to pump water out of the ground to dry out trenches in order to work.) The DNR initially authorized 510 million gallons of dewatering. At Enbridge’s request, it later upped it to 5 billion gallons.
The DNR approved it without any public scrutiny, and during a severe drought.
In another example, it took the DNR five months to learn that Enbridge had punctured an aquifer layer in a sensitive wetland and dewatered it, in violation of its permit. It would be several months more before the DNR would let the public know about it. (See short Honor the Earth video here.)
There several possible explanations why the MPCA, PUC and DNR haven’t proactively published more information of broad public interest around Line 3. They: 1) Don’t want public criticism or embarrassing stories in the media; 2) See themselves as experts and don’t like their authority challenged; 3) View environmental advocates and Indigenous people and Nations seeking the information as problems, not partners; and/or 4) Don’t think the problems mentioned above are of broad public interest, enough to warrant publicity.
I’m open to hearing other possibilities.
I’ve written several Data Practices Act requests on Line 3. I often struggle to ask the perfect questions to get the information I need.
The question I’m asking now is: Why aren’t state agencies routinely providing information of broad public interest as part of their ongoing commitment to public engagement?