For Minnesota's pristine wetlands, N.D. oil boom is new threat

  • Article by: DAVID SHAFFER , Star Tribune
  • Updated: June 9, 2014 - 3:17 PM

A remote wetland near Itasca State Park, already undercut by three crude oil pipelines, is one of several fragile, isolated habitats along the proposed path of the 610-mile Sandpiper crude oil pipeline across northern Minnesota.

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The boggy ground jiggled underfoot as Paul Stolen walked along La Salle Creek, a tiny wetland stream whose banks are staked with orange plastic posts that say, “Warning, Petroleum Pipeline.”

“There’s water flowing beneath the ground,” said the retired Minnesota Department of Natural Resources biologist.

And crude oil too.

This remote wetland near Itasca State Park, already undercut by three crude oil pipelines, is one of several fragile, isolated habitats along the proposed path of the 610-mile Sandpiper crude oil pipeline across northern Minnesota.

The $2.6 billion project would help fix a problem in North Dakota’s booming oil fields. The bounty of almost a million barrels of crude per day far surpasses the capacity of pipelines to refineries in the Midwest and beyond.

The Sandpiper pipeline would be one of the largest across Minnesota, delivering an additional 375,000 barrels daily to Superior, Wis.

But the ecological risk of adding another major pipeline in places like La Salle Creek is raising alarm among state environmental officials. For the first time, the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency (MPCA) is questioning whether more pipelines should be built through the state’s lakes region.

In a new analysis of the proposed Sandpiper route, the agency said the line would cross 28 rivers, lakes and wetlands that can’t be reached from nearby roads. At La Salle Creek, for example, it would be “extremely difficult if not impossible” to bring in cleanup equipment if an oil spill occurs, the agency said.

“The environmental damage that would occur as a result of a leak in this location could be massive,” agency officials said in a letter to state regulators reviewing the Sandpiper project.

Enbridge Energy, the Calgary-based company developing the pipeline, has tried to identify sensitive areas and pick the “least impactful” route, said Mark Curwin, senior director of strategic coordination for U.S. projects.

“In northern Minnesota, it is hard to avoid wetlands and water bodies when you traverse east to west,” he said.

Nine pipelines already carry North Dakota and Canadian crude oil through northern Minnesota. The oldest lines were built in the 1950s and 1960s before many environmental regulations were in place.

As the pipeline network grew, pipeline builders added lines to some of the same rights of way.

When spills happen in roadless places, workers first must construct a temporary road, delaying the cleanup and restoration. The MPCA warned state regulators that “past routes have crossed too many water bodies in inaccessible areas.” Even the section of the Sandpiper route that would follow a new right of way is causing concern.

At Twin Lakes near Menahga, Minn., the state analysis found, the pipeline would cross a wetland complex 1.3 miles from the nearest road. If the pipeline ruptured there, barges or boats might be needed to contain a spill, the MPCA said.

The agency urged the state Public Utilities Commission to consider pipeline routes outside of the lakes region.

Enbridge officials had hoped to start building the Sandpiper pipeline next winter.

The company also has announced plans to build another crude oil pipeline to carry Canadian oil across Minnesota, possibly adjacent to the Sandpiper line.

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  • As Enbridge Energy plans another crude oil pipeline through northern Minnesota bog lands, state environmental officials are worried about the risk of another spill in sensitive natural areas, including some that are inaccessible by road. Here, former DNR scientist Paul Stolen shows some of the sensitive wetland areas along La Salle creek north of Itasca State Park. ] BRIAN PETERSON ‚Ä¢ brian.peterson@startribune.com LaSalle Lake, MN 5/12/2014

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