CARLTON, MINN. – A brisk wind blew through a recently cleared stretch of northern Minnesota forest on Friday as machines stacked logs and built roads to prepare the earth for the long-awaited and still-contested Enbridge Line 3 pipeline replacement.

For the workers now spread out in similar scenes along the pipeline's 340-mile route, the cold air felt like a sigh of relief.

"I got a lot of people who said that it's been nearly a whole year since they went to work," said Royce Schulz, a union steward working on the project in Carlton County. "It couldn't have hit at a better time, to get people back on their feet and making money again."

It's the largest construction project in the state both in terms of cost — at least $2.6 billion — and the number of people it will employ who will take home a big chunk of that investment.

Currently there are about 2,000 workers spread out along the route, prepping sites to lay pipe and building pumping stations. By the end of the month, the workforce will near its peak of about 4,200, at least half of whom will be from Minnesota or just over its borders.

Enbridge expects oil to be flowing through the pipeline by the end of 2021 — a fast turnaround for a project that took six years of regulatory review but a lifetime in this industry.

"A yearlong project in construction is a blessing," said Jason George, business manager for the International Union of Operating Engineers Local 49, which represents workers in Minnesota and the Dakotas. "Look at this the same way you would a lawyer — they don't work on the same case their entire career. With a project like this it's like a career case for a lawyer. It's a shining star for the career of a pipeliner."

Even as legal challenges over the pipeline's approval remain and protests grow over how the pipeline might affect the environment — the route exposes areas of the state to a pipeline for the first time — the attitude on the ground near Carlton on Friday was upbeat.

"It was something we really needed this year, especially with the pandemic — work has been very sporadic to say the least," said Schulz, who has been with Local 49 for 17 years and lives in Hayward, Wis. "To be a part of this project, it's one of the best things that could happen this year for sure."

'We go where the job is'

The day Ryan Randolph got the call to leave his home in Iowa to work on Line 3 in Carlton County, he was picking up his wife from the hospital.

She had just given birth to twins.

"This means everything to me," Randolph said. "Being able to go home on days off and spend time with my kids, all five of them — I miss time with my family but by being busy I've been able to provide for them consistently."

Randolph, a member of the Operating Engineers Local 49 union, has been traveling from job to job all around the country for the past several years and has been eagerly awaiting work closer to home.

His story is similar to many workers who have been prepping the pipeline route since construction officially started Dec. 1, a day after Enbridge received its final state permit.

"We go where the job is," the 42-year-old Randolph said.

About 30% of the workforce will be Operating Engineers union members who run graders, bulldozers, drills, logging equipment and other machinery. Another 30% will be general laborers from the Laborers' International Union of North America.

Half of all those workers will be locally dispatched by the unions while the rest are "company hands," union members who travel with contractors.

Laborers and Operating Engineers officials said many of the company hands also come from Minnesota.

"Minnesota provides by far the largest share of the workforce," said Kevin Pranis, regional marketing manager for the Laborers union.

Another 30% of the Line 3 workforce are United Association Local 798 pipe fitters who will weld the pipeline together. Those workers are more likely to come from out of state. The union takes jobs around the country, although like the other unions many live in northern Minnesota and perform maintenance on Enbridge's four other pipelines that cross the state.

The final 10% of the union workforce is comprised of Teamsters drivers.

"The expectation is that we will be working on pretty much all phases of construction in not too long," Pranis said.

Much like miners on the Iron Range who learn to live with the cycles of the natural resource economy and plan for the downtimes, Randolph said he has learned to live with the uncertainty of not always knowing where the next paycheck would come from.

"It doesn't matter if this is your first job or 25th year doing this, things might change or slow down," he said. Still, he has been a Local 49 member for 16 years and has no intention of changing careers.

"We're out here and we miss our families and our friends, we miss out on a lot of things, but we provide well for our families," he said. "I hope to keep this up for as long as I physically can."

COVID-19 concerns weigh on project

At dozens of public hearings around the state over the past six years, union members showed up to advocate for Line 3 as it progressed through the permitting process.

Enbridge CEO Al Monaco said in a video message last week that "the No. 1 factor in getting this approved was community support."

"Now it's in our hands to build this project together, and safely," he said.

The threat of COVID-19 remains top of mind for the company and communities it will be working in — and for pipeline opponents who said it's unwise for thousands of workers to pour into rural areas during the pandemic. Enbridge said it has taken "industry leading" precautions, including daily self-assessments and temperature checks and mandatory testing on the first and seventh days on site and every other week thereafter.

At work sites in Carlton County and Aitkin County last week, workers were spread out and masked and checked in with a safety lead every time they entered the work area. Still, health departments along the route are keeping an eye on the influx of workers.

"Anytime a community experiences an increase in population, permanent or temporary, there is an elevated risk for medical and public health issues/concerns," said a statement from Erin Melz, Aitkin County's public health supervisor, and Dr. David Taylor, chief medical officer of Riverwood Healthcare Center.

"Although impartial to the pipeline project itself, Aitkin County Public Health and Riverwood Healthcare Center have a heightened awareness of the added concerns and strain it could put on our medical and public health resources."

The recently finished 12-mile North Dakota section of Line 3 included 1,000 COVID-19 tests performed on 400 workers, which resulted in six positive cases, Enbridge said.

The pipeline, which will carry an average of 760,000 barrels of oil per day, begins in Hardisty, Alberta, and travels a total of 1,031 miles to the Enbridge terminal in Superior, Wis. A 13-mile section in Wisconsin was completed in 2017 and restoration work was recently completed along the Canadian length of the line.

Once the replacement is in service, work decommissioning the original 50-year-old Line 3 — which is running at 50% capacity because of corrosion — will begin.

"This is a safety- and maintenance-driven project," said Barry Simonson, the Enbridge project director for the Line 3 replacement. "But I also think it's important that we're putting people to work — a highly trained union workforce, back to work in Minnesota."

'Economic kick' to communities

The pipeline work is divided into five "spreads" across the route where workers are currently clearing brush and building access roads, plus eight pumping stations that are all under construction.

Business leaders along the pipeline are hopeful the workers will give a major boost to hotels, restaurants and retailers that have been hit hard by the pandemic.

"Everything I've seen so far I think they are really keeping safety top of mind, and we're excited to see that as we have people coming into the community," said Butch De La Hunt, CEO of the Park Rapids Lakes Area Chamber of Commerce and Tourism. "Workers in the area are finding lodging, and that equates to cups of coffee, gasoline and takeout from restaurants. It's an economic kick the community needed."

Hill City Mayor Dan Kingsley said his small town along Hwy. 200 already has seen pipeline workers pouring into the area.

"It's going to be such an economic boost for us, which is just wonderful in these hard times," he said.

The Minnesota Court of Appeals could still halt work if pipeline opponents successfully argue construction should be stopped while legal challenges to permits are ongoing. The Public Utilities Commission declined to do so, in part because of the impact it would have on the workers already on the job.

Whatever the legal outcome, protests are expected to grow along the route and at a Mississippi River crossing where several DFL state legislators, including Duluth's state Sen.-elect Jen McEwen, are expected to visit and "express solidarity" Sunday, organizers said.

Some protesters have locked themselves to equipment while others have camped atop trees for more than a week. Activists held a virtual rally last week and urged more people to stand in the way of construction.

Randolph, the Local 49 member who has five children to support, said it's hard enough to find certainty in his work without protests.

"It brings stress on the people who depend on this," Randolph said. "We always are worried about being able to do this, especially in this day and age. It has its hard times and it has its great times."

Includes reporting by staff writer Mike Hughlett.

Brooks Johnson • 218-491-6496