CLEARBROOK, MINN. – Oil started flowing through the newly built Line 3 pipeline in northern Minnesota on Friday, bringing closure to one chapter of the large and bitterly disputed construction project.
Now comes a new one: cleaning up the mess left behind.
Forced by state regulators, Calgary, Alberta-based Enbridge has launched a major cleanup effort in Clearwater County to repair the aquifer crews punctured during construction in January. Artesian groundwater has been welling up for more than eight months near this rural community, wasting at least 24 million gallons and threatening to dry out two rare and protected wetland areas nearby called fens.
"I just don't want people losing precious water," said Jenna Olson, who works at the gas station in Clearbrook, population 464. "That's something serious."
The breach is a significant blunder on one of the largest construction projects in the state's recent history, but it's been largely out of public view given the location and the fact the company failed to tell regulators about it for several months.
The state Department of Natural Resources (DNR) revealed the problem only last month when it ordered Enbridge to pay $3.3 million for the damage and gave it 30 days to stop the uncontrolled flow of water.
Enbridge now faces an Oct. 15 deadline to essentially cork the artesian well it created. Its plan is to drill a new well to pump out some of the water and then inject tons of grout into the ground to try to seal it.
Clearwater County Attorney Kathryn Lorsbach said her office awaits the DNR's investigation reports, expected within weeks, to review for potential criminal charges.
Outraged environmental groups, scientists and Ojibwe bands who opposed the pipeline dismissed the state's enforcement action as too little, too late. They say the rupture is exactly the sort of problem they warned would happen in Minnesota's watery landscape.
'Damage has been done'
White Earth tribal lawyer Frank Bibeau argued in court documents that the DNR would have learned about the rupture much earlier if it had held the requested public hearing before expanding Enbridge's water appropriation permit by nearly 10 times.
"DNR is either unwilling or incapable of stopping Enbridge environmental destruction … at any price," Bibeau wrote in the motion seeking an injunction to stop the DNR from allowing Enbridge to appropriate water.
Others say state regulators should have stopped Line 3 work when Enbridge was found to be out of compliance, and they don't understand how Enbridge was allowed to start the oil flowing.
At a news conference Wednesday, White Earth Nation Chairman Michael Fairbanks decried Line 3's overall impacts, including the aquifer breach, and said he feels like pleas to lawmakers and regulators have fallen on deaf ears.
"Please come up and see this and come look at this devastation to nimaamaa-aki, Mother Earth," Fairbanks said. "The damage has been done now."
The DNR said Friday it has taken all actions within its authority and reiterated DNR Commissioner Sarah Strommen's pledge to hold Enbridge accountable for violating the law and public trust.
"We immediately directed Enbridge to stop pipeline installation at the Clearbrook site when we learned of the breach," DNR Deputy Commissioner Barb Naramore said. "Only when there was an approved corrective action plan were they allowed to resume installation. To facilitate the restoration activities, the pipeline installation needed to be completed prior to repairing the aquifer breach."
The DNR doesn't have authority over when the pipeline starts operating, Naramore said, and the aquifer breach and trench dewatering permit amendment for Enbridge are "completely unrelated."
"No public hearing on that amendment or any other topic would have prevented the aquifer breach at Clearbrook that resulted from Enbridge's over-depth excavation," she said.
Enbridge said it has been monitoring the rupture since January and is working closely with the DNR.
"We share a strong desire to protect Minnesota waters and the environment, and we are committed to restoration," Enbridge spokeswoman Juli Kellner said.
The breach occurred at Enbridge's large Clearwater Terminal, a major pipeline junction, as crews dug deeper than planned for the trench for Line 3. The accident happened on Flint Hills Resources property, Kellner said.
The rural complex of enormous white tanks sits on a dirt road northwest of Bemidji. The 340-mile Line 3 pipeline carrying Canadian tar sands oil to Superior, Wis., is one of several pipelines running through it.
A home for rare species
The ruptured aquifer is about a mile from the fens on Deep and Steenerson lakes. Unlike bogs fed by rain water, the calcareous fens — high in calcium — are fed by groundwater and the aquifer's loss of pressure could destroy them. They're home to threatened plants such as the hairy fimbry and the small white lady's slipper.
"They are among the rarest freshwater ecosystems, and we are only just beginning to learn all the secrets that these beautiful little places hold," said Laura Triplett, chair of the geology department at Gustavus Adolphus College.
The pierced aquifer is not the only accident along the Line 3 construction route. In August, the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency disclosed at least 28 documented spills creating at least 10,000 gallons of muck.
Bemidji resident Ron Turney, a member of the White Earth band and Indigenous Environmental Network, has documented them with his camera and drone, posting on his Facebook page. He called the aquifer breach "a violation of our mother," and said he wonders how many other unrevealed accidents may have occurred.
"This is just here," Turney said. "What else is going on?"
Ken Oraskovich, who lives on Deep Lake next to one of the threatened fens, said he doesn't want it harmed. The fens help clean the water, which is all connected, he said. He's concerned the lake level could permanently drop.
"If that were to go bad, what happens to everything else in the area here?" Oraskovich said, gesturing to the tamaracks, maples and poplars around the lake.
Pump and grout
The company's remediation plan, prepared by Barr Engineering, calls for drilling a new well to pump out enough groundwater to stop the flow to the surface. Then a contractor will inject a quickset clay-and-cement grout to try to seal the rupture, according to the plan attached to the DNR restoration order.
The grout will be injected through 400 2-inch pipes stuck in the ground about 3 feet apart. If that doesn't halt the flow, the contractor may have to try 8-foot-wide columns.
As for the fens, Enbridge must submit a new fen management plan to the DNR. Equipment has been installed near the fens to monitor groundwater pressure. The DNR has said it may take a few growing seasons to see how they've been affected.
Aerial footage of the area around the rupture site shows a large area with pooled water and mud, and a road and staging area built of wood planks for equipment.
Jeff Broberg, a professional geologist who reviewed Star Tribune drone footage of the site, said it shows preparation work for the remediation and characterized Enbridge's plan as a fairly standard approach.
Broberg, who directs the Minnesota Well Owners Organization, said the aquifer each day is losing enough water to fill 4 acres one foot deep, based on state estimates.
"It's a lot of water," he said.
Jennifer Bjorhus • 612-673-4683