MAHNOMEN, Minn. – Gordon Construction built the Shooting Star Casino here, but these days the company is eyeing a big project of a very different sort: Enbridge’s planned new crude-oil pipeline.
Gordon is an American Indian-owned business, and Enbridge has earmarked $100 million in pipeline work for Indian contractors and employees. Gordon has won one pipeline job so far, and it has bids on several more.
“To us, this is huge,” said Matt Gordon, the company’s director of operations. “This is going to catapult us to a whole new level.”
Minnesota isn’t teeming with Indian-owned construction firms, and Gordon might be the largest, which begs the question: Can Enbridge deliver on its $100 million pledge, a last-minute selling point in the company’s quest to get state approval for the controversial pipeline?
“Do I think we will hit the $100 million? Yes, I think we will,” said Paul Eberth, Enbridge’s project director for the pipeline, which would replace its aging and deteriorating Line 3.
Beyond direct construction, Enbridge will need all sorts of supplies for the $2.6 billion project, from safety equipment to lodging and gasoline — all of which can be provided by Indian-owned firms, Eberth said. Also, construction unions will be upping their recruitment and training of Indian workers.
Still, Enbridge may get a lukewarm response from some Indian contractors and workers because of tribal opposition to the new Line 3.
The Minnesota American Indian Chamber of Commerce told the Star Tribune that while its mission includes promoting Indian businesses, “we don’t seek economic prosperity at the expenses of our members’ shared values, which include an unwavering commitment to environmental stewardship.”
Blowback from tribal members opposing the new pipeline is a possibility facing Indian contractors and workers who sign on with Enbridge.
“I expect it,” Gordon said. “Everyone around here knows me. I grew up here. If I do get it, it would have to be some out-of-towner.”
Bidding process underway
Enbridge’s new Line 3 would be one of the largest construction projects in recent Minnesota history — bigger than the $1.1 billion U.S. Bank Stadium in Minneapolis. The 340-mile pipeline — which diverges from the existing Line 3 route at Clearbrook — would ferry oil from Canada across northern Minnesota to Enbridge’s terminal in Superior, Wis.
Most Ojibwe bands in northern Minnesota — including White Earth, Red Lake and Fond du Lac — fought against the pipeline for three years in the regulatory process, fearing a new Line 3 would open a new region of pristine waters to environmental degradation from oil spills.
But the Minnesota Public Utilities Commission, declaring the old Line 3 to be unsafe, granted Enbridge a “certificate of need” for the pipeline in late June. Enbridge still must get other state and federal permits and meet several conditions set by the PUC.
Enbridge said that construction would begin in the first quarter of 2019. But the bidding process is already underway, and Gordon is paying close attention.
Gordon, a member of the White Earth Nation, runs the construction firm founded by his dad, Butch Gordon. The older Gordon, now semiretired, served in the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and started out as a construction laborer in Chicago, eventually advancing to supervisor.
Butch Gordon returned home to the White Earth reservation and in 1983 started Gordon Construction as an excavating company. Over the years it became a general contractor, with major projects including the Shooting Star casino, a clinic in Sisseton, S.D., and a public library in Bemidji.
Matt Gordon, 47, began working with his dad as a kid. He’s been in construction his entire career, other than a two-year stint in the 1990s working at the giant Red Dog zinc mine, an indigenous-owned property in arctic Alaska.
Gordon Construction has had previous contracts with Enbridge, building a helicopter hangar and a maintenance building for a pump station on the pipeline route. Six Enbridge pipelines run across northern Minnesota in a corridor dotted with pump stations to keep the oil flowing.
Gordon now is maintaining several pipe yards where Enbridge is storing pipe for the new Line 3. For the line’s construction, Gordon has teamed with Duluth-based United Piping to bid on several new pump stations. Gordon would do the earth and concrete work; United Piping the valve and piping work.
They’ve won one contract for a pump station near Line 3’s terminus in Superior, and they have bid on several more. Each station in Minnesota is worth about $20 million. Depending on how the bidding goes, Line 3 “would double the size of our company,” Matt Gordon said.
More work is potentially in the offing: Enbridge will remove parts of old Line 3 once the new one is built, entailing another round of bids from contractors.
“That’s going to be huge, too,” Gordon said.
Forming joint ventures
Earthworks and FDL Pipeline Services, both Indian-owned companies, also are bidding on Line 3 work.
FDL, which operates out of Cloquet, was formed last year, partly in anticipation of the Line 3 project, said Rob Abramowski, the company’s president and one of its owners.
“There was kind of a gap between Enbridge and native-owned contractors,” said Abramowski, a member of the Fond du Lac Band of Lake Superior Chippewa. “There weren’t many available.”
Abramowski, who was once superintendent for tribally owned Fond du Lac Construction, is a contract inspector for Enbridge, examining pipeline maintenance work. FDL Pipeline Services has done work on a non-Line 3 Enbridge project and expects to bid on contracts for “bag weights” for the new pipeline.
The bags are filled with sand, gravel or other aggregate and are used to keep pipelines from becoming buoyant in soggy terrain.
Earthworks, which is owned by the Red Lake Band of Chippewa, has teamed up to bid on Line 3 with Charps, a Clearbrook-based pipeline construction and maintenance firm.
“We were very receptive to Charps when they asked us to participate in a joint venture,” said Gordon Jallen, Earthworks’ general manager.
Earthworks was formed in the early 2000s and has “done some pretty substantial projects,” Jallen said. “We’d like to think [Line 3] would be the biggest project we have done, but we don’t know yet.”
The partnership is bidding on several pump stations, with Charps doing valve and piping work and Earthworks handling earth moving and concrete work.
Like Gordon and Abramowski, Jallen recognized tribal resistance to the Line 3 project.
“I realize that some are opposed to the pipeline,” Jallen said. “While our tribe very much supports alternative energy solutions — we have a big solar project going on here right now — oil is still a driver of the economy.”
Earthworks, as a tribal-owned company, was created for economic and employment opportunities for tribal members, Jallen said. Gordon and Abramowski also said they are trying to create as many jobs for tribal members as they can.
“If you are an able-bodied American Indian looking for a job, particularly with skills, you are first on the list,” Gordon said.