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

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

The Utilities Commission, which has the authority to approve or reject the Sandpiper project, is scheduled to vote Thursday on whether to review the route separately from its review of the project’s need.

That decision could affect the timing of the project, but final action is months away regardless of the outcome.

Enbridge welcomes the comments from the agencies and intends to address their concerns, Curwin said. For example, he said, the company will consider adding shut-off valves at waterways as the DNR has urged.

Trip into La Salle Creek

At La Salle Creek, pipelines cross at a point where the water flows into a chain of pristine lakes. Just 3½ miles downstream, the state recently spent $8.7 million to acquire land and develop the La Salle Lake State Recreation Area.

As Stolen, the retired DNR biologist, walked along La Salle Creek, he worried about what might happen if an oil pipeline ruptured in the area.

“If it spilled here, you couldn’t clean this up,” said Stolen, who spent two decades reviewing the effects of projects like pipelines for the DNR. “Twenty-thousand barrels of oil could go right down to the lake.”

La Salle Creek is one of more than a dozen sensitive areas that lie along the proposed Sandpiper route, according to the MPCA and the Minnesota DNR.

Others include the upper Mississippi River and the Straight River, a noted trout stream near Park Rapids, Minn.

Ten places potentially crossed by the pipeline, including the Nemadji River, Kettle River and Crow Wing River, are undergoing taxpayer-funded wetland restorations.

One area at risk is a walleye fishing spot and wild rice region in Aitkin County.

“If a spill were to occur in this stretch of pipeline, there is little to prevent it from quickly moving downstream to the walleye spawning area, wild rice beds and Big Sandy Lake,” DNR principal planner Jamie Schrenzel said in a letter to state regulators.

Both agencies have suggested alternative routes, and the DNR is urging regulators to reconsider an existing right of way through Bemidji, Minn. But that route already holds six petroleum pipelines and crosses almost as many isolated water bodies, leaving regulators with tough choices.

Remote access

Although the proposed path of the Sandpiper crosses hundreds of wetlands, environmental officials are most concerned about the inaccessible ones.

At least four Minnesota crude oil pipeline accidents, including the state’s biggest in 1991, required immediate construction of temporary roads, according to MPCA officials.

“Sometimes they have to build a road in a real wet area like a wetland and they do that with timber mats,” said Steve Lee, head of the MPCA response unit. “They are giant timbers chained together that they lay in a wet area and basically float the road across.”

Doug Bellefeuille, an MPCA official based in Detroit Lakes who has overseen spill cleanups for 17 years, says he keeps a pair of fishing waders in his trunk so he can slog through the muck as a first responder.

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  • Photo gallery: Oil pipelines run under fragile wetlands, waterways

    Sunday June 8, 2014

    A remote wetland near Itasca State Park, already undercut by three crude oil pipelines, is one of several isolated...

  • 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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