Volunteers spotlight more groundwater problems apparently created during Line 3 pipeline construction

State environmental watchdogs are investigating, but not releasing any details

Video screen grab showing construction matting at Walker Brook.

This a corrected version of an earlier blog. The original version incorrectly said the DNR and MPCA made a joint statement about the Walker Brook situation. This post includes their separate statements. The previous post has been taken down. I regret the error.

More environmental damage is coming to light from construction of the Enbridge Line 3 tar sands pipeline, and its due to citizen volunteers.

The group Waadookawaad Amikwag (Anishinaabe for “Those Who Help Beaver”) has been monitoring the construction corridor for unreported environmental damage out of concern that state regulators weren’t paying attention to it.

Waadookawaad Amikwag released a video this week of what they say is a fourth cold underground water breach, this one where Line 3 crosses Walker Brook South in Clearwater County.

The DNR denies that there is an aquifer breach, suggesting it is “an upwelling of shallow groundwater resources that has complicated site restoration.”

(The DNR’s statement is silent on the connection between Line 3 construction and the upwelling of shallow groundwater or how much groundwater has upwelled.)

This comes on top of three Line 3 aquifer breaches we already know about: Clearbrook, LaSalle Creek, and Fond du Lac.

All this environmental damage falls disproportionately on the Anishinaabe (Chippewa and Ojibwe) nations in northern Minnesota. In approving Line 3’s Certificate of Need, the Minnesota Public Utilities Commission “expressed serious concern with the Project’s impacts to indigenous populations, acknowledging that the Project would traverse ceded territories where Minnesota’s Ojibwe and Chippewa tribes hold … hunting, fishing, and gathering rights.”

Minnesota environmental regulators haven’t made public any problems at Line 3’s Walker Brook South’s crossing.

In response to Healing Minnesota Stories’ questions, the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources (DNR) and Minnesota Pollution Control Agency (MPCA) said: “While the investigation is ongoing, we cannot provide details about the situation.”

The DNR continued: “However, we want to correct your suggestion that there is an aquifer breach at this site. Based on our work thus far, the Minnesota DNR has found no evidence of an aquifer breach. Instead, the Walker Brook location appears to have an upwelling of shallow groundwater resources that has complicated site restoration.”

The MPCA continued: “The MPCA is in regular communication with on-site independent environmental monitors to ensure the company adheres to permits that remain in place while the company works to restore the site.”

Just because the matter is under investigation shouldn’t preclude agencies from releasing basic information.

(Note: After construction, Enbridge gave Line 3 the alias Line 93. Both are used in this post.)

Sheet pilings (left) were driven deep into the ground to try to keep the pipeline trench from filling with water. In some cases, they punctured aquifers.

State regulators shouldn’t be surprised that the environmental damage occurred. They ignored their own rules on pipeline construction. Minnesota Rule 6135.1100 says: “A pipeline route should avoid wetlands, streams, and areas with high water tables, especially if construction requires excavation.”

Line 3’s 337-mile route crosses 78 miles of wetlands – nearly a quarter of its entire route. If the rule was to ever apply, Line 3 would be it.

Enbridge even acknowledged to the DNR it couldn’t build Line 3 without violating state rules, “given northern Minnesota’s topography and environment (e.g., avoiding wetlands),” according to one of its permit applications.

The following images are screen grabs from the Waadookawaad Amikwa video of the Line 3/93 second crossing of Walker Brook.

Clearly, somethings going on here. Line 3 construction ended in late 2021. Why all this construction matting?

The video says there is black piping at the site to divert water away from the timber matting and a sinkhole, directing it to the forest’s edge where it flows into Walker Brook.

A temperature gauge shows the water at 45 degrees, colder than the surrounding water and indicative of a deep water breach.

“The dramatic water level changes in this valley of floating bogland makes this an especially scary place for a tar sands pipeline installation,” said Jami Gaither, a retired metallurgical engineer turned clean water advocate and member of Waadookawaad Amikwag.

“As noted by experts during [Line 3] permitting, these glacial till lands throughout northern Minnesota are an unstable environment unsuitable for a petroleum pipeline, which metallurgically cannot afford continuous and/or flexing and bending stresses that might lead to an early fatigue failure.”

Updates on other problems at Line 3 aquifer breaches

Clearbrook Breach

The first Line 3 aquifer breach occurred in January, 2021 near the Clearbrook Terminal in Clearwater County. Enbridge delayed reporting the breach to the DNR and took nearly a year to fix it. It’s released 72.8 million gallons of groundwater, and water is still trickling out of one spot.

DNR Commissioner Sarah Strommen said: “Enbridge’s actions are clear violations of state law and also of public trust,” in a September 2021 media release. “This never should have happened.”

It happened again. At least twice.

LaSalle Creek Breach

Around Aug. 2, 2021, Line 3 workers broke an aquifer cap at the LaSalle Creek crossing in Hubbard County, the apparent result of driving sheet pilings 27-feet deep.

Enbridge and Barr Engineering responded by proposing to inject grout, basically concrete, into the ground to stop the water from reaching the surface, said Laura Triplett a geologist who is supporting Waadookawaad Amikwag.

Enbridge injected over injected “over 51,000 gallons of grout,” she said. “Basically, in this delicate system of wetlands, they have created a permanent, underground, reinforced concrete wall, over 20-feet high in places, and 2.5 football fields in length.

“Enbridge calls this a fix. We call it a preventable tragedy.”

LaSalle is an absolute disaster.Laura Triplett, geologist

Enbridge said it fixed the breach on Dec. 20, or more than four months after it occurred. At that point it had released 9.8 million gallons of groundwater.

The creek is a designated trout stream. The area was known to have wetlands and springs “that could be sensitive to construction activity,” the DNR said.

The department was concerned enough about the potential environmental damage from Line 3 construction it required Enbridge to do additional testing of the area’s geology and groundwater before starting work, according to the DNR’s Comprehensive Enforcement Resolution. Yet the resolution doesn’t explain why, even with the extra geological testing, the breach occurred.

On July 11, Enbridge notified the DNR the site again had an uncontrolled groundwater release of 5-10 gallons per minute (7,000 to 14,000 gallons/day). As of Oct. 17, Enbridge was waiting for DNR to approve its latest repair plan.

Pre-Line 3 construction view of LaSalle Creek crossing. Image: Laura Triplett.

“LaSalle is an absolute disaster,” said Triplett, who also served as an expert witness during Line 3’s permitting process, trying to warn the state about the dangers Line 3 posed.

The LaSalle Creek breach is “still leaking a lot of water,” she said. “They aren’t measuring all of the leakage. There is not going to be a good way to fix it.”

LaSalle Valley has a number of different and interdependent wetlands, she said. “You can’t just wreck one part of this valley and say the rest is fine.”

Fond du Lac Breach

On Sept. 5, 2021, the DNR learned about a third aquifer breach, this one in St. Louis County, the largest of three known breaches. As of March 21, the DNR estimated the breach had released 220 million gallons of groundwater.

Enbridge and the DNR refer to the breach site as “MP 1102.5,” a rather nondescript name. The breach occurred just 400 feet west of the Fond du Lac Band’s Reservation boundary, so water protectors refer to it as the Fond du Lac breach.

Enbridge said the breach occurred in what the state classifies as a “Class 2D wetland, or waters that ‘support aquatic life/biological diversity and recreational opportunities.’”

Through a Data Practices Act request, Healing Minnesota Stories got a copy of a Sept. 27, 2021 memo from Enbridge to the DNR, where Enbridge wrote: “… no historical geotechnical information was available for this site.”

That would have been good information to have before construction started. Red flags were there had Enbridge or regulators looked.

In a Nov. 7, 2021 memo to the DNR, MPCA, and others on its Corrective Action Plan, Enbridge wrote that the area where the breach occurred had “high artesian pressures … at relatively shallow depths, easily disturbed confining layer soils, and … high flow rates.”

Seems like a really bad area to be digging a pipeline trench. To quote Commission Strommen: “This never should have happened.”

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