Willis Mattison spent nearly three decades with the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency, much of that time in Detroit Lakes, Minn., as a regional director.

After retiring from the agency in 2001, he has remained interested in the ecology of northern Minnesota, where he still lives.

He recently began helping the Friends of the Headwaters, a newly formed citizens group, as a technical adviser on the proposed Enbridge Energy Sandpiper pipeline. The $2.7 billion project would carry North Dakota crude oil through Minnesota along a route proposed west of Park Rapids, Minn., and then east to Superior, Wis.

Mattison recently talked to the Star Tribune about pipelines and the environment.

Q: At the MPCA what experiences did you have with crude oil pipelines?

A: I was unfortunate enough to be transferred to Detroit Lakes for the PCA in the 1970s when Enbridge Energy (then called Lakehead Pipe Line Co.) experienced 13 major leaks and ruptures in a 12-month period, the largest of which was in 1979 at Pinewood [Minn.], where about a quarter million gallons of crude oil was lost from a major rupture.

Q: What was learned from that spill?

A: When pipelines are routed through very coarse soils, the lost oil is very, very difficult to recover and can rapidly move to groundwater. If there had been nearby water supplies and wells, they would have been very quickly contaminated by the oil that was lost into this coarse soil.

Q: Did that spill get cleaned up?

A: Large oil spills are never cleaned up. As is evidenced by Pinewood, we are 40 years downrange and that site is still being monitored for residual oil in the ground. That’s what the public doesn’t understand about the cleanups promised by pipeline companies. You recover what you can and then you largely end up monitoring what’s left. This site has become a national study site of the U.S. Geological Survey with regular symposiums on the fate, transport and degradation of oil in the ground.

Q: Some people argue that pipelines are the safest way to transport crude oil. What’s your view?

A: That is a disturbing statement. The numbers don’t support it. The comparison between railways and pipelines is skewed by perception, because the railroad accidents we’ve had recently have been rather dramatic and tragic. When you look at statistics, which really should drive policy on this, it is a different picture. If you look at product released per year, it is almost 100 times larger in volume on pipelines over railroads. If you look at volume per incident, it is almost 10 times greater for a pipeline rupture than it is for a railroad incident.

Q: What are your concerns about Enbridge Energy’s plan to build the Sandpiper pipeline partly along existing pipelines west of Park Rapids?

A: The concern is that we have an inclination to repeat history, thinking that past decisions were good. The pipeline corridor was established way back in the 1950s when there virtually were no rules and regulations. There are a lot of reasons why we should look for a safer route. Sensitive natural areas along the corridor need much more careful analysis, and comparison to the myriad alternatives that are available. The current process is not amenable to examining all of them.

Q: Friends of the Headwaters has raised concerns about groundwater. Why is that a concern in a region better known for lakes and rivers?

A: Surface and groundwaters are not separate systems. A contaminant that flows into surface water could contaminate groundwater and vice versa. One particular aquifer that is threatened by the proposed Sandpiper pipeline is extremely important to the Park Rapids area for domestic, industrial and agricultural uses. A major oil spill there would threaten a significant part of that community’s economy — tourism, industry and agriculture.

Q: What do you think of Minnesota’s process to review pipelines?

A: It has been significantly altered by the lobby of the crude oil industry, and as a result it has been short-circuited and is opaque and rushed. It makes me very nervous. Citizens are rightly concerned, and are objecting to this process.

Q: Do you think citizens who speak out can have an impact on big energy projects?

A: The pipeline industry quite clearly has been given an express lane through Minnesota’s environmental protection laws. I am not sure any of the citizen complaints are going to amount to much of anything because the process is so stacked against the people. I am embarrassed as an environmental activist that I didn’t understand this earlier. Maybe we can change the process after the fact, but we are going to suffer the consequences of this.

Q: What do you think of the argument that crude oil pipelines should be blocked as a way to address climate change?

A: People focus on it because they are frustrated and they have so little leverage on energy policy. I don’t know that it’s a very good argument, but I understand why people focus on pipelines as a political fulcrum to leverage a shift to alternative sources of energy.