Opposition grows as oil pipelines proliferate in northern Minnesota

  • Article by: DAVID SHAFFER , Star Tribune
  • Updated: March 15, 2014 - 7:48 AM

Near Park Rapids, an expanding underground pipeline route is raising fervent opposition from residents.

– Leon Rogers has lived next to crude oil pipelines for years. He’s had enough.

With four pipelines already buried beneath his farmland and a fifth one planned next to his house, Rogers and many of his neighbors are no longer ambivalent about the river of oil flowing through this region of forests, lakes and rivers.

“They are making it a freeway for pipelines,” said Rogers, a registered nurse who has lived on a small farm south of Park Rapids for 18 years. “It comes down to, ‘I don’t want to live here.’  ”

Anti-pipeline sentiment is spreading in Minnesota’s North Woods, where 14 percent of the nation’s oil supply already flows through 10 cross-state pipelines leading to Superior, Wis., and the Twin Cities. It’s happening amid persistent environmental opposition to the proposed Keystone XL pipeline, which would run from Alberta, Canada, through western U.S. states, and to a proposed copper-nickel mine near Minnesota’s Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness.

For years, pipeline companies like Enbridge Energy, based in Calgary, Alberta, have faced not-on-my-property opposition over new pipelines carrying Canadian and U.S. oil. Now, residents like Rogers and a new citizen group are asking: Should the Mississippi River headwaters be a major conduit for crude oil?

Enbridge is proposing to build the 610-mile, $2.6 billion Sandpiper pipeline across North Dakota and Minnesota to transport oil from the Bakken region to Superior. Part of the route passes Itasca State Park on a corridor that already has four crude oil pipelines owned by another company.

“This one has caught everyone’s attention,” said Willis Mattison, a former regional administrator for the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency who is advising a newly formed group called Friends of the Headwaters, which has challenged the project.

Two month after it formed, the Park Rapids-based group says hundreds of people have expressed support. In a sign of the anti-pipeline sentiment, a crowd of 130 people at a public meeting in Park Rapids Wednesday applauded everyone who spoke against the project. The lone supporter, a local bus driver, made his remarks to polite silence.

The following night, in Carlton, Minn., an even larger crowd showed up at a meeting held by state agencies and Enbridge. “Where did all these people come from?” said Steve Schulstrom, an organic farmer who helped form the Carlton County Land Stewards to protect organic and sustainable farms in the pipeline’s path. He said about 180 people showed up. “It amazed me.”

State agencies led by the Minnesota Public ­Utilities Commission have just launched their review of the line, a process expected to take 10 months. Enbridge recently said it plans to build another $2.6 billion pipeline across Minnesota, replacing an older one that’s prone to leaks. The route hasn’t been announced, but Enbridge said it will consider using the same path as the Sandpiper line.

“We are the headwaters for the Mississippi River, one of the world’s great rivers, and within 25 miles of Park Rapids are over 400 lakes, some of them the clearest in the state,” said Richard Smith, a photographer who serves on the Friends of the Headwaters steering committee.

In a uniquely North Woods problem, Smith said many summer-only residents likely don’t know about the Sandpiper pipeline, and deserve a say on the route before regulators act. Enbridge announced the proposed route in November, after many seasonal residents had left. Yet the deadline for objections is early April, before many return.

Although the Hubbard County Board and other groups have pressed for more time, the PUC says that’s not possible because state law requires a decision 12 months after the project’s application. Indeed, activists like Smith and Mattison said the state’s fast-paced review process may make it difficult, if not impossible, for them to halt the Sandpiper line or have much influence over its route.

Incumbent’s advantage

That’s a big difference with the better-known battle over the proposed Keystone XL pipeline, which would bring Canadian oil through western states. Keystone XL needs a presidential permit to cross the international border, and unless President Obama approves the project, it may not be built.

But Sandpiper, whose route is entirely in the United States, doesn’t need such a permit. It also doesn’t require a full-blown environmental impact statement, like Keystone XL and the proposed PolyMet Mining copper-nickel mine in northeastern Minnesota. Instead, a consultant will conduct a streamlined environmental review of the Sandpiper route.

Mattison said the pushback against Minnesota oil pipelines has been influenced by the high-profile Keystone XL debate and the resurgence of environmental activism in Minnesota over what would be the state’s first copper mine.

“People are making a difference with Keystone. People are making a difference with PolyMet,” Mattison said. “Maybe we can make a difference with the pipeline.”

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    Enbridge Energy says replacing its 46-year-old crude oil pipeline across Minnesota will boost safety. But opponents don’t see it that way.

  • Leon Rogers choked up as he talked about losing the woods that hide the track where four pipelines run under his Park Rapids property.

  • Enbridge’s Major Pipeline accidents

    Since 1972, Enbridge Energy crude oil pipelines have had 23 major spills in Minnesota, according to a Minnesota Pollution Control Agency database of releases exceeding 10,000 gallons. The last major spill was in 2002, the data show. Here are some notable accidents, all on a pipeline known as Line 3 that Enbridge proposes to replace.

    Bemidji, August 1979: After a 449,000-gallon spill, nearly a quarter of the released crude oil oozed through sandy soil into a wetland and the water table. For three decades, the site has been a focus of research into how crude oil breaks down naturally.

    Grand Rapids, March 1991: This state-record crude oil spill of 1.7 million gallons happened when Enbridge employees misinterpreted alarms from the ruptured line and didn’t respond immediately. This mistake would be repeated nearly two decades later in a large Enbridge pipeline spill in Marshall, Mich. The 1991 accident polluted a tributary of the Mississippi River and cost $7.5 million to clean up.

    Cohasset, July 2002: About 252,000 gallons of crude oil spilled when the pipeline ruptured from fatigue cracks traced to improper handling of pipes during shipping when the line was being built. A controlled burn of the pooled oil sent smoke a mile high.

    Clearbrook, November 2007: Two Enbridge workers were killed when crude oil leaked during repair work and exploded, igniting a fireball. Enbridge was later fined $2.4 million for safety lapses.*

    *Not considered a spill because the oil burned.

    David Shaffer

    Sandpiper

    Project: Sandpiper oil pipeline

    Route: 610-mile crude oil pipeline would run from the Bakken region of western North Dakota across northern Minnesota to Superior, Wis.

    Cost: $2.6 billion

    Operator: Enbridge Energy of Calgary, Alberta.

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