Health professionals and northern Minnesota residents pleaded with Gov. Tim Walz to halt construction of Enbridge’s controversial $2.6 billion oil pipeline, saying the project will draw thousands of out-of-state workers who could accelerate the spread of COVID-19.

Health Professionals for a Healthy Climate, at an event with climate justice group MN350, held a socially distanced media event and rally Wednesday morning in front of the governor’s residence in St. Paul.

Enbridge received a final permit from the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency on Monday, and on Tuesday started building the replacement for its deteriorating and aging Line 3.

Speakers at the event said more than 4,000 Enbridge workers living and working in close quarters has the potential to develop into a superspreader event. They said if average Minnesotans and small businesses were being asked to limit their movements and even curtail holiday celebrations and travel, “big oil” could also do its part in stopping the virus’ spread across northern Minnesota.

The 340-mile pipeline will cross northern Minnesota, connecting the oil fields in Alberta with Enbridge’s facility in Superior, Wis.

“I am asking Gov. Walz to issue a stay on Line 3 construction as a COVID -19 mitigation measure,” said Dr. Vishnu Laalitha Surapaneni, a Twin Cities physician specializing in internal medicine who has been on the medical front lines battling COVID-19 since last spring.

“These are perfect conditions for the virus to spread and harm us,” because some of the workforce will be from out of state and many will stay in hotels, she said.

Enbridge said this week it has “industry leading” health protocols, including testing, social distancing measures and sanitation of work sites. Rules also will not allow workers to congregate during breaks and meals, and their hotels will be “deep cleaned.”

About two dozen supporters took part in Wednesday’s event, wearing masks and holding signs. Several speakers also spoke to environmental concerns around the pipeline’s construction.

Surapaneni was the only medical doctor to speak in person at the event, but several others including Dr. Nyasha Spears of Duluth submitted statements, which were read to the media, asking the governor to stop pipeline construction.

According to MN350, more than 200 Minnesota health professionals have signed a petition asking Walz to halt pipeline construction, which will cut through rural areas with “limited health care capacity.”

Laura Triplett, an associate professor of geology, said she and other scientists from a variety of disciplines are rallying around medical professionals who want Line 3 construction halted as a COVID-19 mitigation measure.

“We think science is a powerful tool, but it will only work if we listen to our science professionals,” Triplett said. “We need to pause Line 3 until COVID-19 case counts go down.”

Decisions ahead

The Minnesota Public Utilities Commission will decide Friday morning whether to halt construction by issuing a stay on its approval for Line 3 while the Minnesota Court of Appeals considers permit challenges. The Red Lake Band of Chippewa and the White Earth Band of Ojibwe made the request last week.

The Department of Commerce, which has appealed the pipeline’s approval and represents citizens in regulatory matters, took “no position on their current motion pending before the PUC,” the department said in a statement Wednesday. It could be months before the appeals court issues decisions in the case.