EPA raises red flags on Enbridge Line 5’s environmental and tribal impacts

Minnesota DNR belatedly provides new information on Line 3 aquifer breeches

The United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) had raised a number of warnings about Enbridge’s plan to replace its Line 5 tar sands pipeline, including the pipeline’s impact on water quality and Native nations.

The pipeline would run through the watershed that feeds into the Kakagon-Bad River Slough Complex, which abuts Lake Superior. It’s an environmentally sensitive area: 10,760 acres of mostly undeveloped sloughs, bogs, and coastal lagoons, critical to the lake’s health.

For instance, the area harbors “the largest natural wild rice bed on the Great Lakes,” according to the Ramsar International Treaty. “[T]hese wild rice beds are becoming increasingly fragmented on Lake Superior – as the only remaining extensive coastal wild rice bed in the Great Lakes region, it is critical to ensuring the genetic diversity of Lake Superior wild rice.”

A slough is “a swamp or shallow lake system, usually a backwater to a larger body of water.”

The Bad River-Kakagon Slough Complex includes the Bad River Slough, a 173-acre lake, and the Kakagon Slough, a 71-acre lake.

The EPA raised its red flags in a March 16 letter to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers on the Line 5 project.

The existing Line 5 passes through the Bad River Band Reservation. Bad River opposes rebuilding the pipeline along the same route. Enbridge’s proposed solution is to reroute the pipeline so it narrowly skirts the reservation.

It’s no solution. Line 5 would still threaten the reservation’s watershed and Lake Superior.

The Bad River-Kakagon Slough Complex is at the north end of the Bad River Reservation. Image: Carl Sack.

EPA’s letter said these sloughs “are resources of national importance because they are economically significant; their unique characteristics have been identified and designated for protection under international, national, state, and tribal law; and these waterbodies are integral to maintaining and enhancing the quality of the Nation’s waters.”

“In addition to the economic and cultural value of wild rice to the Bad River Band, the sloughs provide important habitat supporting many fish species integral to Lake Superior recreational and commercial fishing,” the letter continued. “Bad River Band noted in 2019: ‘Comprising a significant portion of the remaining Lake Superior coastal wetlands, the Kakagon and Bad River Sloughs is critical to supporting the biodiversity of Lake Superior fisheries.’”

“According to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the Kakagon Slough is also a Nature Conservancy Priority Conservation area, a Wisconsin Legacy Place, a Wisconsin Bird Conservation Initiative Important Bird Area, a Wisconsin Wetlands Association Wetland GEM, and a Wisconsin Coastal Wetland Primary Inventory Site,” the EPA wrote.

Enbridge Line 5’s impact on hydrology near the Bad River Band Reservation. Image: Great Lakes Indian Fish and Wildlife Commission.

Line 5 construction would cross 72 waterbodies where the federal government has jurisdiction. The trenching and HDD could introduce excess sediment, fuels, lubricants, and drilling fluids which could get into the wetland complex through connected tributary streams, “and may permanently and negatively impact water quality, aquatic life, and native habitat,” the EPA wrote.

EPA believes that the Kakagon-Bad River Sloughs “are especially vulnerable” from Line 5 because several waters connected to the watershed “are already impaired and/or are susceptible to receiving high loads of sediment,” its letter said.

At a minimum, the EPA said it needs more information to judge the project. Based on the information it had, it couldn’t determine whether the Line 5 plan would violate water quality standards, or if it were “the least environmentally damaging practicable alternative.”

The worry here is — just like Line 3 — Enbridge and state and federal regulators will justify approving Line 5 by saying the environmental and other damages could be “mitigated.”

They can’t.

The EPA’s letter to the Army Corps of Engineers recommeds it investigate construction alternatives, such as using trenchless (above ground) water crossings, or looking to expand use of Horizontal Directional Drilling (HDD).

The Line 3 experience shows that HDD didn’t work all that great. The use of “drilling mud” under pressure to drill these underground tunnels result in “frac outs,” where the drilling mud escapes into subsurface waters and can reach the surface.

The public struggled to get real time information on frac outs from state regulators, nor did Enbridge or state regulators notify the public in a timely manner of significant aquifer breeches that occurred during Line 3 construction.

For instance, Enbridge violated its Line 3 building plans, trenched too deep in Clearwater County, and broke through an artesian aquifer illegally discharging 50 million of gallons of water.

The breech happened in January, 2021. The Minnesota Department of Natural Resources (DNR) didn’t learn about it until June. The DNR didn’t inform the public until September, seven months after it happened (and at a point where it still hadn’t been fixed).

Now, four months after Enbridge finished building Line 3, we learned of two other major groundwater breeches it made.

Enbridge had a second breach around Aug. 2 near LaSalle Creek in Hubbard County, MPR reported. It “released about 9.8 million gallons of groundwater before Enbridge reported it had stopped the flow four months later.”

A third breach happened around Sept. 10 near the Fond du Lac Band reservation. Workers were removing sheet piling from a construction site and groundwater “began welling up,” MPR reported. “The DNR said Enbridge has substantially slowed — but not completely stopped — that leak, which has resulted in the release of nearly 220 million gallons of groundwater.”

Six months after the breach, Enbridge “substantially slowed” the problem, but it’s not completely fixed, MPR said.

Altogether, Enbridge’s flawed construction work led to at least 280 million gallons of groundwater being illegally released.

Mitigation might look good on paper. Just look at Line 3 to see how environmental damage happens with these “mitigation” efforts in place.

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