PALISADE, MINN. – Drumming and singing rose from the snowy banks of the Mississippi River on Wednesday morning while heavy machinery beeped and revved in the distance. A dozen protesters prayed by the river as the state's largest construction project, the $2.6 billion Enbridge oil pipeline, continued its early stages in rural Aitkin County.
"I'll be a great-grandmother soon, so that is what I'm standing for — for those generations that are coming," said Tania Aubid, a member of the Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe and a local resident who carried a bullhorn and chiding pipeline workers for being there.
Aubid's voice carried through the trees and under the power lines near where the pipeline — a replacement for Enbridge's aging and deteriorating Line 3 — is being constructed as workers carried on, their vests and equipment spread out and visible to the horizon west of the river.
Not far from the road where self-described water protectors have been gathering daily, two protesters remained camped atop trees. They have been there since Friday trying to stay in the way of construction that started last week after Enbridge received the last permit it needed following six years of regulatory review.
Trees have been cleared all around the pair as preparations to lay the 340-mile pipeline continue across northern Minnesota.
"As a company, we recognize the rights of individuals and groups to express their views legally and peacefully. We expect our workers on Line 3 to do the same," Enbridge said in a statement. "As part of their onboarding, each Line 3 worker goes through extensive training, including cultural awareness."
Already, about 2,000 workers are expected at job sites along the route this week. More than 4,000 are expected to be working by the end of the month, unions say.
While the specter of the massive Standing Rock protests hangs over the Line 3 project, the crowd along the river north of McGregor has remained small so far. Pipeline opponents are still hoping to stop construction through lawsuits.
A request to have the Minnesota Court of Appeals halt construction while permit challenges are ongoing is expected to be filed in the next week after state regulators declined to grant a stay.
In the meantime, protesters will continue putting their bodies in the way and raising their voices.
"People are doing what they can to prevent what's going on," Aubid said. "I do what I need to do in order to protect the waters."
Keeping the peace
Walking around the construction site, Aitkin County Sheriff Dan Guida says hello to workers and protesters alike, calling them by name and making small talk.
"We try to be in the middle just to keep the peace," he said. "We are not pro-pipeline or anti-pipeline. Enbridge has obtained all the proper permits for this project."
The sheriff and his deputies have been acting as mediators between the protesters and the workers, ensuring that tensions don't escalate and that people don't trespass on private land.
One protester who locked himself to equipment was arrested, Guida said, and several have been warned not to occupy the pipeline right of way and instead hold their action along the side of the road.
While the protesters in the trees are trespassing, they will be allowed to remain so long as they remain safe.
"If they come down right now they would be arrested or issued a ticket, but it's no longer a safety issue," Guida said.
Enbridge said in its statement that "while we do support everyone's right to speak out about important issues, 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."
Shanai Matteson, who moved back to the area this summer and lives near the pipeline route, said those in the trees were up there because "that's what they're called to do."
"One of the reasons that I'm here is that I don't believe it has to be this way," said Matteson, an activist, writer and artist. "We have gone along with these kinds of things for so long thinking those are the only kinds of jobs we can have."
Standing in the way
After protesters were asked to move for a short time while machines kicked up brush Wednesday morning, a number of them drove to another job site along the route. Joshua Roy drummed and sang in the back of a pickup on a narrow dirt road while traffic was halted for equipment to be unloaded.
Indigenous groups and environmentalists have fiercely opposed the pipeline through regulatory battles and lawsuits, claiming the risk of oil spills and the contribution to climate change is too great and that the line is not needed.
Enbridge and its supporters have said the new pipeline "has passed every test" and would move oil more safely across the state than the 50-year-old Line 3 that will be decommissioned once the replacement is online. The company also has said its oil forecasts show the line is needed.
The Canadian energy company also said the tribal cultural resources survey led by the Fond du Lac Band of Lake Superior Chippewa "identified important cultural and historic sites to be avoided and protected during construction."
While the protests have remained peaceful, Enbridge now faces a major roadblock after a ceremonial lodge was constructed along the pipeline route near the Mississippi River, and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers ordered work to stop at that specific site on Saturday.
"A potential historic structure was encountered along one of the spreads adjacent the Mississippi River and in our permit area. Following the procedures outlined in the monitoring and inadvertent discoveries plan, the on-site monitor issued a stop work order and Enbridge ceased work at this location," said Shannon L. Armitage Bauer, chief of public affairs for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers St. Paul District. "We are engaging with the permittee, their consultants, Fond du Lac and other tribes as appropriate on a daily basis to discuss the discovery, answer questions, assess our level of involvement and determine the appropriate course of action."
Work on the rest of the line, including right up to the edge of that site, continued on Wednesday.