Two protesters climbed trees at a Mississippi River crossing Friday to stand in the way of Enbridge Line 3 pipeline construction, which began earlier this week across northern Minnesota.

The protesters, who call themselves "water protectors," mounted the protest among an Aitkin County forest set to be logged as "direct blockades to the attempt by Enbridge to drill Line 3 under the Mississippi River."

"Water is not invincible. That's why I am here," said 22-year-old Liam DelMain of Minneapolis in a statement released by Giniw Collective. "I am here, putting my body on the line, because I have been left with no other choices."

The Giniw protest is the first along the pipeline's route since construction began this week and comes four years after the massive, months-long Dakota Access Pipeline protest at Standing Rock. Several other protesters came to the site on Friday afternoon, and a live stream from Native Roots Radio showed a discussion between Aitkin County Sheriff Dan Guida and the handful of others at the site. The sheriff's office did not have a comment on the situation when reached Friday afternoon.

Enbridge said in a statement: "Our first priority is the safety of all involved — our workers, men and women in law enforcement and the protestors themselves. As a company, we recognize the rights of individuals and groups to express their views legally and peacefully. We don't tolerate illegal activities of any kind including trespassing, vandalism, or other mischief, and Enbridge will seek to prosecute those individuals to the fullest extent of the law."

A second protest led by Indigenous activists began along the pipeline route near Cloquet on Friday and included several dozen folks "exercising their treaty rights to perform Anishinaabe cultural practices including smudging, making tobacco ties, and praying," according to a news release from the Line 3 Media Collective, which said the gathering is "part of an ongoing Indigenous-led battle on the front lines of construction."

Enbridge received the last of its permits this week after six years of review and legal battles, which have not all been resolved. The Minnesota Public Utilities Commission on Friday declined a request to halt construction on the pipeline while an appeals court considers permit challenges. The Red Lake Band of Chippewa and the White Earth Band requested the stay last week.

The 340-mile pipeline would carry an average of 760,000 barrels of oil per day between Alberta and the Enbridge terminal in Superior, Wis. It would replace the 50-year-old Line 3, which is operating at half capacity due to its age and condition. The replacement Line 3 will follow a largely new route across the state due in part to an agreement to keep the pipeline off of the Leech Lake Reservation, which several Enbridge pipelines currently cross.

Construction on the $2.6 billion pipeline began on Tuesday and has drawn about a thousand workers to job sites with another thousand due next week. It is set to employ more than 4,000 people at its peak.

Opponents say the influx of workers could lead to increased spread of COVID-19 in rural areas at a time when the virus is already straining resources around the state. Enbridge says its safety measures are "industry leading."

"Our plan includes regular, repeated COVID-19 testing for all workers as well as daily health and temperature screenings, and adherence to required on-site safety protocols like wearing masks, observing strict physical distancing, and regularly sanitizing work areas," the company said. "Union workers have experience following similar safety protocols on other major construction projects that have continued in Minnesota throughout the pandemic."

Brooks Johnson • 218-491-6496