Partnership for Civil Justice Fund seeks information on the ties between Enbridge, sheriff’s offices
Government transparency is critical to make the engine of democracy work. If we don’t know how and why the government makes decisions, we can’t make informed choices.
In the case of the Enbridge Line 3 pipeline, a greedy corporation and weak state regulators have scapegoated Native American water protectors and their allies as lawbreakers. Enbridge’s Line 3 construction has done more harm than the front-line activists, yet the company doesn’t face nearly the public scrutiny or penalties.
Information is power. What information is publicly available — or not available — shapes public opinion.
Law enforcement agencies put water protectors under the microscope and closely monitored their activities while state regulators allowed Enbridge to operate in the dark.
This imbalance in scrutiny is built into our public institutions’ structures.
Line 3 critics have said law enforcement is biased in favor on Enbridge, a charge law enforcement agenices deny. Evaluating the dispute requires an understanding of the working relationships between Enbridge and law enforcement — and that information is tough to come by.
Start with the state of Minnesota’s secretive Northern Lights Task Force. It was created in 2018 to respond to Line 3 resistance.
The Task Force has a Facebook Page to highlight water protector arrests, as the example below shows.
Getting information on the Task Force’s inner workings isn’t easy, requiring dedicated reporters filing data practices requests.
A 2019 Unicorn Riot article broke the story on the Task Force. It obtained internal documents that showed state officials have created a command structure “to quickly confront any protest against the pipeline.” The Task Force “had already begun coordinating ‘resources and communication between police agencies and pipeline company Enbridge, prepared responses, and facilitated civil disturbance training for hundreds of officers.'”
A June 7, 2021 article by The Intercept said that while police “have repeatedly denied having a close relationship with Enbridge,” records obtained through public information requests showed “Enbridge has provided repeated trainings for officers designed to cultivate a coordinated response to protests.”
For instance, a public safety official had invited Line 3’s security chief to regular intelligence sharing meetings. “In one case, the official passed along intelligence to Enbridge’s security chief for Line 3: a list of people who attended an anti-pipeline organizing meeting,” the article said
So let’s drop the facade. Law enforcement was working hand-in-hand with Enbridge.
Next, the Minnesota Public Utilities Commission (PUC) approved a system where local law enforcement could get reimbursed for Line 3-related expenses through an Enbridge-funded escrow account.
Many see the funding scheme as a conflict of interest. These payouts further bias law enforcement in favor of Enbridge and against water protectors. As of early October, the escrow account had doled out $3 million to law enforcement agencies. That number is rising.
The Washington D.C.-based Partnership for Civil Justice Fund (PCJF) has been filing Minnesota Data Practices Act requests with county sheriffs offices along the Line 3 route seeking emails between sheriffs and Enbridge to get a window into their working relationships.
“We are building a lawsuit based on this relationship,” said Amanda Eubanks of the Center for Protest Law and Litigation’s Partnership for Civil Justice Fund.
They haven’t released details yet, though they are expected soon.
Some sheriffs have pushed back against these data requests, Eubanks said. The most challenging response came from Aitkin County Sheriff Dan Guida.
PCJF filed a data request with Aitkin County May 26, and says it still hasn’t received satisfactory answers.
“This is a crucial issue,” Eubanks said. “We think he is violating Constitutional rights and civil rights … We want to know what he is hiding.”
Guida defended his response, saying he had communicated with a number of people at the PCJF who weren’t communicating with each other. Bottom Line: “We had no emails,” he said. “We had no data.”
The Partnership filed a complaint against the Aitkin County Sheriff’s Office with the Minnesota Department of Administration’s Data Practices section. On Oct. 21 it got a favorable advisory opinion ruling.
“The Aitkin County Sheriff’s Office’s did not respond appropriately to [the] request for all data reflecting correspondence or meetings between the Aitkin County Sheriff’s Office and a specified individual, as the Sheriff’s Office’s response was ambiguous and did not properly indicate whether responsive data existed,” wrote Alice Roberts-Davis, the Commissioner of Administration.
Guida said he withheld two emails that cc’ed Enbridge security chief Troy Kirby for security reasons. The Center had asked for more information to justify the decision. According the advisory opinion, Guida didn’t respond with enough detail to that request.
This dispute is just a microcosm of a larger problem. It’s a story about which ways state law enforcement and regulators point their investigative tools, which ways they don’t, and what information becomes publicly available.
In an interview with Healing Minnesota Stories, Guida said unlike some other counties, his deputies didn’t provide routine patrols of Enbridge worksites. They would only respond if there was going to be an action.
“Our intelligence analysts would say, ‘Hey, it looks like they are bringing 400 people,'” he said. “There are three buses coming from here, here, and here. In those situations we would go there. We wouldn’t go out there when there was no intelligence.”
The point here is that intelligence analysts were regularly motoring water protectors.
Take a step back and consider all the things that deserved state monitoring that got inadequate attention.
In January, Enbridge violated its construction plans. It resulted in a massive aquifer breach, releasing 106,000 gallons of water a day. The state didn’t learn about it until June. That’s because state regulators didn’t have full-time staff on the ground. The PUC approved a plan that allowed Enbridge to select, train, and pay for the environmental monitors that were supposed to work for the state. Turns out roughly half of them had worked for Enbridge in the past.
The Minnesota Department of Natural Resources (DNR) didn’t learn about Enbridge’s aquifer breach until June, nearly five months after the fact. The public didn’t learn about the breach until September, after Line 3 was nearly completed. The aquifer breach still hasn’t been fixed.
Where were our state’s intelligence analysts?
The DNR is investigating other other potential breaches, but as yet is keeping the public in the dark.
The maximum penalty the DNR could impose was $20,000, nothing to a multi-national. Meanwhile, some water protectors arrested for misdemeanor trespass ended up spending a night or two in jail.
In some very wet areas, Enbridge laid the pipeline by tunneling under rivers and wetlands. These often resulted in environmental violations, with drilling mud released into rivers and wetlands, an event called a frac out.
The Minnesota Pollution Control Agency (MPCA) initially refused to make public frac out details. It took state legislators intervening on the public’s behalf to pry it loose.
We still don’t know about Line 3’s local job impacts even thought the PUC cited local job creation as a main reason for approving Line 3. Healing Minnesota Stories asked the PUC why it didn’t require Enbridge to report local jobs numbers. The PUC said it is not required to answer such questions.
Since the outset of the Line 3 debate, Indigenous leaders and their allies raised fears that the influx of out-of-state pipeline workers would lead to an increase in sex and drug trafficking. The PUC approved a toothless human trafficking prevention plan. It didn’t require Enbridge to report if workers got arrested for sex trafficking, nor did it impose sanctions on Enbrdige should trafficking problems arise.
We know anecdotally that two human trafficking stings in northern Minnesota led to 13 arrests, and four of them (30 percent) were Line 3 workers.
Healing Minnesota stories asked the PUC if it regretted putting lax conditions on Line 3’s human trafficking problems. The PUC said it was not required to answer such questions.
Where are our state intelligence analysts who can tell us the number of local jobs Line 3 created, or the violence residents suffered, particularly Indigenous women, because of this project?
We don’t know this information because the institution that are supposed to protect and inform the public didn’t require it.
We don’t have the whole picture around Line 3’s costs and benefits. The invisible hand is moving behind the scenes, making public information beneficial to Enbridge, and withholding information that would put the Line 3 project in a bad light.
Data Practice issues
There’s a piece of this story around state Data Practices Law I can’t unravel, but more information should come out soon.
PCJF said Sheriff Guida told them he had destroyed documents they had requested, a claim Guida denied. He also offered some qualifications.
Not all emails are covered by the state’s Data Practices Act, Guida said. He’s only required to keep “offiical data,” such as contracts and agreements. Emails that are just correspondence are not covered by the state Data Practices Act.
The data requests he received were for communication between him and Kirby, and him and Rick Hart, who manages the Public Safety Escrow Account.
“Our email gets overloaded and we delete things,” Guida said. “We have the ability to delete them after 30 days, I do it after 90 days.”
I’m still looking into state data practiceslaw, but this seems to be a trend in the state, according to a 2016 article in the Pioneer Press: “A growing number of municipal employees across Minnesota can expect the electronic messages in their email inboxes to self-delete after a few weeks,” it said.
These policies weaken government accountability.
Regardless, Guida maintained he didn’t withhold anything.
“I am not sure what kind of games they are playing,” he said. “I have no data for them and they think I’m trying to hide something and I am not.
Stay tuned, more details should be coming soon.