DNR evades key questions about Enbridge’s Clearbrook aquifer breach

Maybe it doesn’t know the answer. Maybe it’s just not telling. Either way, it’s bad.

If a contractor working on your house damaged your foundation, wouldn’t your first question be: “Why did this happen?”

Nearly two years ago, workers building the Enbridge Line 3 tar sands pipeline failed to follow construction plans and broke through an aquifer in Clearwater County, known as the Clearbrook breach. It wouldn’t get fixed for a year and would release 72.8 million gallons of groundwater.

The Minnesota Department of Natural Resources (DNR) has announced sanctions, but has yet to explain why Line 3 workers didn’t follow construction plans and damaged the aquifer.

Further Enbridge should have reported the aquifer breach right away. The DNR wouldn’t learn about the violation for four-plus months. (And the DNR didn’t learn about it from Enbridge, but indirectly from Independent Environmental Monitors.)

The DNR still hasn’t explained why Enbridge didn’t report the aquifer breach in a timely manner.

In announcing sanctions Sept. 16, DNR Commissioner Sarah Strommen said: “This never should have happened, and we are holding the company fully accountable.”

However, the DNR is failing to answer these critical questions about the breach, and without transparency there is no accountability.

Site of the aquifer breach in Clearwater County. Photo: Independent Environmental Monitor report, Feb. 2, 2021.

In January, 2021 Enbridge Line 3 workers went way off script. The DNR had OK’ed digging 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.

I emailed the DNR communications staff and asked if the department had determined why Line 3 workers had deviated so far from construction plans.

The DNR didn’t respond directly, instead referring me to documents on its website. None of the documents answered my question.

Why would the DNR refer someone to read documents that they know don’t answer the question?

Perhaps it’s because it spares the DNR the embarrassment of having to admit either “we don’t know,” or “we know, but we’re not telling you.” Either way, its a bad look.

Line 3 workers breached the aquifer around Jan. 26, 2021. The DNR didn’t learn out about it until June, 15, 2021.

I asked the DNR if it had determined why no one — either Line 3 staff or the Independent Environmental Monitors — reported the Clearbrook breach to the department right away?

Again, the DNR referred me to documents on its website that didn’t answer my question.

By all appearances Enbridge deliberately disregarded construction plans, and when the breach occurred it tried to keep it quiet as long as possible.

The DNR is treating these two violations as simply as accidents or oversights.

It’s baffling. Enbridge is a multi-billion corporation. It can afford the best consultants, managers, and construction crews. They know the difference between a 10-foot-deep trench and an 18-foot-deep trench.

Surely the Enbridge knows the rules about reporting an aquifer breach to the DNR right away, too.

In a Sept. 16 media release, Commissioner Strommen called Enbridge’s actions a “clear violations of state law and also of public trust.”

The DNR is violating the public trust, too. It’s not providing information the public has a right to know. If it hasn’t already, the DNR needs to ask Enbridge “Why did you screw up so bad?” and share the information openly.

Enbridge damaged our environment. The Clearbrook aquifer repair involved pumping 547,692 gallons of grout (think cement) into the ground, according to Enbridge documents. (For a mental picture, that’s enough to build a grout wall two-feet thick, 15-feet tall, and nearly a half-mile long (or .46 miles to be exact).

Why did this happen?

One hypothesis is that these violations were intentional and profit motivated: Enbridge knew the money it could make by getting the pipeline running as quickly as possible would more than offset the costs of state-imposed fines and environmental “repairs”.

Another hypothesis is that in spite of being a multi-national corporation with tons of money to pay experts, Enbridge’s management of Line 3 construction simply was incompetent.

If Enbridge and the DNR want us to believe it was an accident, they need to explain it.

The DNR should ask Enbridge “Why did you screw up so bad?”

These are not just questions for Minnesota. Enbridge is currently trying to build a similar tar sands pipeline through northern Wisconsin, into Michigan, under the Great Lakes, and back into Canada.

In addition to Clearbrook, Line 3 workers breached two other aquifers, one in Hubbard County at Line 3’s LaSalle Creek crossing, the other in St. Louis County, right next to the Fond du Lac Reservation. Collectively, these three breaches released around 300 million gallons of groundwater.

There could be other damage we haven’t heard about yet. The DNR and MPCA are investigating another apparent Line 3-related groundwater problem in Clearwater County, but haven’t released any information.

If we don’t want to see these problems replayed here or in some other state, more needs to be done to understand why these violations occurred.

Investigating damage to rare fen

The breach occurred about a half-mile from a “calcareous fen.” A DNR pamphlet on calcareous fens calls them “Amazing, Rare, Irreplaceable.” Minnesota law says “Calcareous fens … may not be filled, drained, or otherwise degraded, wholly or partially, by any activity,” unless the commissioner deems it necessary and there is an approved management plan.

Fens are very susceptible to disturbance. The loss of groundwater could allow invasive plants to out compete and crowd out rare species.

DNR calcareous fen pamphlet.

The area of the aquifer breach and the fen are likely connected by groundwater. Lowering the groundwater at the breach site could affect the fen.

The DNR is now involved in a multi-year effort to determine if the aquifer breach damaged the fen. “As yet, the monitoring has not revealed any damages, but those could take multiple years to become apparent,” a DNR spokesperson said in a statement.

Post Script: Enbridge has a pattern of playing the DNR

As Line 3 construction was starting in December, 2020 the DNR issued Enbridge a permit to “dewater” 511 million gallons of groundwater. (In dewatering, groundwater near and under the trench gets pumped out of the ground and discharged elsewhere to dry out the trench for workers to work.)

In May, 2021, Enbridge wrote the DNR to say it was very close to exceeding its permit. It would have dewatered 479 million gallons of groundwater by June 1, 2021, and would only have completed 186 miles of the 330-mile pipeline by that time.

Enbridge had to do a lot of dewatering because more than 20 percent of the Line 3 route went through wetlands.

Enbridge put the DNR in a box: Either enforce the permit and stop the project, or approve the dewatering increase.

On June 4, the DNR authorized Enbridge to dewater up to 5 billion gallons, or a ten-fold increase.

The DNR’s permit amendment said Enbridge’s new dewatering request was “due to the encountering of more groundwater than originally anticipated.”

Again, the official explanation strains belief. This project was built during a drought. It should have required less dewatering, not more.

Further, Enbridge can afford the best scientists to calculate all this stuff. Why were Enbridge experts so far off?

Enbridge wasn’t penalized for seeking the huge dewatering increase. That sends a message to industry to low-ball requests to the DNR and come back later to ask for an increase after the project is underway.

The DNR kept the public in the dark about Enbridge’s requested dewatering increase. The public learned about it on June 4, 2021 when the DNR announced its approval.

The DNR seems more concerned about its relationship with Enbridge than informing members of the public who are concerned about what’s going on.

One thought on “DNR evades key questions about Enbridge’s Clearbrook aquifer breach

  1. DNR AND PUC, PCA, DOT, DPS, and even LEO – all seemingly got played by Enbridge as the post-construction damages show.

    Many promises made by Enbridge during permitting about their “safe” process have now been revealed to have been largely empty promises. Some might call them lies.

    Claims made by Enbridge that they’ve fixed the landscape and remediated water quality concerns are proven to be false, as Enbridge – again and again – must admit their “fixed” breaches… are still flowing, just as their revegetation plans have proven fruitless.

    And Minnesotans are left holding the bag and cleaning up the Enbridge mess.

    From the environmental damages we’re now assessing all through the Line 3/93 corridor, to the court cases prosecuting Water Protector defendants, counties are finding themselves in losing battles.

    Water Protectors are being acquitted for lack of evidence as counties find Enbridge’s slush fund to NOT cover prosecution expenses, a big disappointment especially for nearby Hubbard County. The work the Law Enforcement Officers helped them do was all Enbridge cared about – keeping voices quiet along the corridor during construction was their goal. What the counties have to deal with in the legal aftermath doesn’t warrant Enbridge’s attention or their financial support it seems.

    Now that the endless Enbridge Public Safety Escrow Account has been closed, we’re not seeing much LEO presence along the corridor during our monitoring. Enbridge may have been short-sighted in not realizing Water Protectors would continue to stand for truth and witness to the needed accountability.

    They are failing to shut us up now.
    Waadookawaad Amikwag are going public with a webinar on Line 3/93 corridor post-construction environmental damages on that next week: https://www.facebook.com/events/1123199291656187/

    Sadly, we’re not seeing DNR or PCA out there in the field.

    Perhaps Commissioner Tuma could have asked Enbridge to create, in addition to their “public safety” escrow account, an Environmental Safety Escrow Account that would pay for state regulators to be in the field confirming the remediated landscape. Seems Minnesota lacks the funds to do this work as funding focuses on permitting upcoming projects, not investigation of permit violations on past projects.

    …and the environmental disasters Waadookawaad Amikwag keep uncovering are showing there’s PLENTY of that confirmation work to be done.

    See you all on November 16th.


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