Say a bank robber gets a jaywalking ticket while making his hasty escape, but still gets to keep the loot. That’s not justice.
Say a multinational company gets a small-fine misdemeanor for willfully damaging Minnesota’s environment and gets to keep its profits. That’s not justice, either.
Yet that’s what’s happened with Enbridge, which ruptured at least three aquifers while building its Line 3 crude oil pipeline across northern Minnesota.
On Monday, the Minnesota Attorney General’s Office, and separately the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources (DNR) and the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency (MPCA), issued media releases announcing penalties they’ve imposed.
The penalties are meager, the accountability paper thin.
Lots of damage, one misdemeanor
In 2021, Enbridge’s Line 3 construction punctured aquifers Hubbard, Clearwater, and St. Louis counties. Cumulatively, they released several hundred million gallons of groundwater, in violation of Enbridge’s permits and state law. (The aquifer breach at LaSalle Creek in Hubbard County still isn’t fixed, releasing nearly 29,000 gallons of groundwater daily, the DNR said.)
The DNR referred the case to Clearwater County, which referred the case to the Minnesota Attorney General’s Office.
Attorney General Keith Ellison announced Monday his office filed one misdemeanor for appropriating waters without permit. It’s the “only criminal charge available under current Minnesota law,” Ellison’s office said.
Under the terms of the deal, Enbridge admits to the Clearwater County aquifer breach and will pay a $1,000 — “the maximum fine available under the law,” the media release said. If the company remains law-abiding, “the misdemeanor charge will be dismissed after one year.”
Put another way, Minnesota laws have been written to protect Enbridge (and other major polluters) from larger penalties that would deter bad behavior.
In comparison, many water protectors, including Honor the Earth co-founder Winona LaDuke, received trespass charges for participating in Line 3 resistance actions. Some, including LaDuke, ended up spending time in jail
In a media statement, LaDuke applauded Ellison for bringing the misdemeanor charge against Enbridge.
She also criticized the DNR and MPCA, which consistently failed Minnesota’s natural resources, lands and Indigenous treaty rights “by allowing this dangerous project to proceed,” she said.
“I also ultimately wonder why I went to jail and Enbridge did not,” she said.
Margaret Levin, Director of the Sierra Club’s North Star Chapter, also offered qualified praise of the state actions.
For far too long, Enbridge has operated with impunity in Minnesota … We applaud Attorney General Ellison for doing what he could within existing law to finally hold Enbridge accountable for their egregious safety record. The law needs to be changed so that polluters are fully held accountable for their crimes, with penalties proportionate to the damage.Margaret Levin
Current law allowed the DNR to impose a maximum $20,000 fine against Enbridge for its Clearwater County aquifer breach.
DNR, MPCA overstate penalties
The MPCA and DNR Monday announced that following “extensive enforcement investigations” of Line 3’s aquifer breaches, Enbridge would have to pay more than $11 million.
Their media release offered the confidence and authority of the Wizard of Oz. DNR Commissioner Sarah Strommen said her agency was holding Enbridge “fully accountable.”
MPCA Commissioner Katrina Kessler said “the MPCA issued our most stringent water quality certification to date and permits that were strong, enforceable, and protective — and this enforcement action holds Enbridge accountable for the violations that occurred during construction.”
“The Great and Powerful Regulatory Agencies Have Spoken!”
Let’s put Enbridge’s $11 million bill in perspective.
Enbridge’s 2021 revenues topped $35 billion. The $11 million cost represents 0.03 percent of its annual revenue. If you made $80,000 a year, your equivalent payment would be $24, or less that the cost to fill your gas tank.
It’s not even clear Enbridge will have to pay the full $11 million. Some funding is required only “if needed.”
For example, Enbridge settled with the DNR, and the Fond du Lac Band of Lake Superior Chippewa for Enbridge’s St. Louis County aquifer breach, which occurred near Fond du Lac’s Reservation. The company will pay:
- $150,000 for the DNR and Fond du Lac to conduct ongoing monitoring
- $20,000 in penalties to the DNR (the statutory maximum)
- $105,000 in civil penalties to Fond du Lac
- $200,000 to Fond du Lac for water quality enhancement projects
- $300,000 in financial assurance funds available to the DNR, if needed, for restoration, mitigation, or monitoring (emphasis added)
- $1 million in financial assurance funds available to Fond du Lac, if needed, for restoration, mitigation, or monitoring (emphasis added)
The DNR and Enbridge reached separate agreements addressing the aquifer breaches in Clearwater and Hubbard counties. Details here.
It appears Enbridge faced no additional penalties for intentionally violating its permit in the Clearwater County breach. Enbridge failed to follow approved construction plans. The DNR had approved Enbridge to dig an eight- to ten-foot-deep trench. Instead, workers trenched 18 feet deep – and drove sheet pilings 28 feet into the ground, breaching the aquifer.
Enbridge should have reported the breach immediately. The DNR didn’t learn about it for nearly five months.
There is still no public explanation or accountability for how or why this happened.
The MPCA and Enbridge reached a stipulated agreement Oct. 17 where the company agreed to pay:
- $895,000 in a civil penalty to the MPCA
- $2.6 million in supplemental environmental projects unrelated to Line 3 construction damage, such as projects to reduce sedimentation in trout streams.
- $1.5 million to cover MPCA’s ongoing costs related to Agreement oversight.