DULUTH – Two pipeline workers were among those arrested in a human trafficking sting in Itasca County last week, stoking activists' fears the Enbridge Line 3 project could increase such crimes in Minnesota.

Matthew T. Hall of Texas faces a felony charge of solicitation of a person believed to be a minor. The 32-year-old told investigators "he responded to an online advertisement and knew the person offering sexual acts for money was under the age of 16," according to charges.

Michael K. West of Missouri faces a misdemeanor charge of solicitation to engage in prostitution and a gross misdemeanor charge of carrying a pistol without a permit.

In a statement made at the Itasca County jail, the 53-year-old said "he arranged to buy sex because he was a thousand miles from home," according to charges. "He said he worked for Precision Pipeline and heard about the website where he found the ad from rumors at work. West said that he was a 'horrible example' and that he would 'teach all these young men what not to do.' "

Precision Pipeline, of Eau Claire, Wis., is one of the main contractors on the 334-mile Line 3 pipeline now under construction across Minnesota.

"The two workers were terminated immediately when the company learned that they had violated our zero tolerance for illegal behavior," Precision said in a statement. "We remain steadfast in our commitment to compliance with all anti-trafficking and anti-exploitation laws and our zero tolerance for those who seek to deprive others of their fundamental freedoms and human rights is at the core of our organization."

Enbridge said in a statement it has "zero tolerance for illegal and exploitive behavior," the company said. "Such behaviors from anyone associated with this project will not be tolerated and are immediate grounds for dismissal."

A total of seven men were arrested in the sting led by the Bureau of Criminal Apprehension (BCA), the Tribes United Against Sex Trafficking (TRUST) task force and the Itasca County Sheriff's Office. The suspects connected with undercover agents through online ads and were led to a location where they were arrested between Feb. 17-19, authorities said.

Taysha Martineau, a member of the Fond du Lac Band of Lake Superior Chippewa who has been a leading voice opposing the Enbridge Line 3 project, said she hopes the company takes a stronger stance against "exploitative behaviors."

"We hope and pray this issue is addressed quickly so that it doesn't continue," she said. "Nobody wants to be the one to say I told you so. We're heartbroken this situation arose, and we're ready and willing to continue drawing awareness."

During the project's lengthy review, state regulators wrote that "the addition of a temporary, cash-rich workforce increases the likelihood that sex trafficking or sexual abuse will occur."

Enbridge says it requires human trafficking training before beginning work and "will continue to work with the state, tribes and our contractors on actions to combat trafficking in our society."

"We are working together with contractors and our construction teams to make certain our standards and expectations are clear," the company said. "We support all efforts by law enforcement to arrest perpetrators as well as the prosecution of anyone participating in trafficking to the maximum extent of the law."

BCA Superintendent Drew Evans said earlier this year: "When it comes to Line 3 we want to make it very clear, sex trafficking is never welcome in our state." He said in a news release the arrests were "about people making the choice to victimize innocent people, and we're not going to stand for it."

The BCA and the TRUST task force have worked with Your Call MN to highlight resources and to direct folks to report crimes or seek help. Call 1-877-996-6222 to report suspected trafficking or text HELP to 233733 to reach the National Human Trafficking Hotline.

Brooks Johnson • 218-491-6496