RICE LAKE – Harvey Goodsky Jr. navigated a canoe through the marsh while his wife, Morningstar Goodsky, harvested. A pile of wild rice gradually grew between them.

It's an annual ritual, one that American Indians like the Goodskys have practiced for generations in Minnesota. Wild rice is a staple for the Ojibwe, the primary tribe in Minnesota, and is central to tribal culture.

The Ojibwe say wild rice waters would be increasingly at risk if a pipeline planned by Calgary-based Enbridge comes to fruition. The company wants to replace its aging Line 3 with a new oil pipeline on a new route across northern Minnesota to its Superior, Wis., terminal.

Nearly 3,400 acres of wild rice lakes would be within 10 miles downstream from Enbridge's proposed route, according to a report by the Minnesota Department of Commerce. The new Line 3 would thread through notable ricing areas, including Aitkin County, home to the Rice Lake National Wildlife Refuge.

"A pipeline a little bit north of here is frightening to us," Harvey Goodsky said. "Our wild rice is very fragile as it is, whether there's a pipeline or not. With a pipeline, we'd be counting the days until there's a spill and people would come out and say, 'We did the best we could.' "

Enbridge says its new pipeline would feature state-of-the art safety technology and points to its long history of operating safely in Indian Country.

"We have successfully coexisted for 65 years," said Paul Eberth, director of Enbridge's Line 3 replacement project. "Certainly, protection of our resources is a number one priority."

Enbridge sees the new pipeline as a must-do safety project. The existing Line 3, built in the 1960s, is corroding and can be run at only 51 percent capacity for safety reasons.

The company, which proposed the new pipeline a few years ago, is in the home stretch of the regulatory process, and opposition from Indian bands and environmental groups is intensifying. The Minnesota Public Utilities Commission (PUC) is set to decide Line 3's fate in April.

Crossing treaty lands

Enbridge now ships 2.5 million barrels of oil each day through six pipelines across Minnesota. All six, including Line 3, run along the same corridor, which parallels U.S. Hwy. 2 from Bemidji to the Twin Ports.

The corridor cuts across the reservations of the Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe and the Fond du Lac Band of Lake Superior Chippewa. The Leech Lake band made it clear to Enbridge several years ago that it would not host a new pipeline, according to PUC filings.

Enbridge, ceding to Leech Lake's wishes, wants the new Line 3 to follow its current route to Clearbrook, then jog south toward Park Rapids, running parallel to an existing oil pipeline run by a different company. It would then head east to the Twin Ports.

The new Line 3 wouldn't cross any reservations in northern Minnesota. However, it would run though lands on which the Ojibwe — also known as the Chippewa or Anishinaabe — have treaty rights.

When the Ojibwe ceded lands to the United States in the 19th century, the band retained hunting, gathering and fishing rights. Treaty land is still "the land to which the people belong," said Winona LaDuke, founder of the environmental activist group Honor the Earth and a member of the White Earth Nation.

White Earth is one of seven Ojibwe bands in Minnesota. Together they have more than 45,000 members.

The Ojibwe "are very clear" that Enbridge's plan "would have a long-term detrimental effect on tribal lands, resources, spiritual places, medicines, food and members," the Commerce Department report concluded.

The Fond du Lac band perhaps best summed up the tribal position in a PUC filing: "Even if the existing Line 3 were taken completely offline and not 'replaced' by the expansion proposal, there is more than enough oil coming into Minnesota markets from other pipelines."

The Commerce Department, which represents the public interest in matters before the PUC, came to a similar conclusion last month.

Enbridge's proposed new Line 3 would cross some lake country that has no oil pipelines, including near the town of East Lake in Aitkin County, where the Goodskys live. The couple are both members of the Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe.

Harvey Goodsky, 27, has been wild ricing for about five years, Morningstar, 30, for a bit longer. On a recent morning they set out on Rice Lake, a hardwood-ringed gem tucked into a national wildlife refuge. Harvey propelled the canoe with a 12-foot cedar-hewn pole, gliding through a green thicket, while Morningstar pulled stalks of rice into the canoe with one cedar "knocker," batting out the grains with another.

"This is home for us, and this is the most important place for us," Harvey Goodsky said.

The Goodskys harvest rice in several places, including the Mississippi River and Big Sandy Lake. Under Enbridge's proposal, Line 3 would run between Rice Lake, 6.25 miles away, and Big Sandy, 3.3 miles away.

The company says it's highly unlikely that oil from a spill could reach Rice Lake since the pipeline would cross only 100 yards of the lake's watershed.

Big Sandy is in a different watershed, and it could be "hydrologically connected" to a pipeline spill, Enbridge acknowledged. "Hydrologically connected" means that it's "theoretically possible" for oil from a leak to reach a lake because it's downstream from the pipeline, according to the company.

Ray Wuolo, Enbridge's senior hydrogeologist, said that 215 lakes would be hydrologically connected over the pipeline's proposed 340-mile route — 2.8 percent of all lakes in the 15 major watersheds in Minnesota crossed by a new Line 3. Of those, 36 lakes would be the "first lake downstream" from any spill; 89 would be connected by wetlands or topography.

Enbridge says that many hydrologically connected lakes would not be reached by a spill because the oil would be blocked by soil and vegetation or an emergency response effort. Eberth said the company believes the pipeline's threat to wild rice lakes — or any water bodies — is "being overstated."

Following a prophecy

For America Indians, wild rice — "manoomin" in Ojibwe — is more than just food.

"It's fundamental to the Anishinaabe existence," said Joe Plumer, attorney for the White Earth Nation. "That's how we ended up here, because the prophecies said we needed to go where the food grows on the water," he said of the ancient Ojibwe migration westward to what's now Minnesota.

The Commerce Department, in its environmental assessment of Line 3, noted the cultural importance of wild rice lakes.

"Tribal members believe manoomin is priceless; it nourishes the soul, community and bodies of the Anishinaabe," the assessment said, quoting a tribal elder. The report also said the "tribes are very concerned about accidental spills."

Since 2002, Enbridge's pipelines in Minnesota have sprung 60 leaks, but the company's spills in recent years have involved relatively small amounts of oil, according to a Star Tribune analysis of federal pipeline safety data.

"I understand the need for oil, but it's important that people look at the destruction that could happen from an accident," said veteran wild ricer Jason Barber of Duluth as he finished a harvesting expedition on Rice Lake.

"There is no 100 percent safe pipeline."

Mike Hughlett • 612-673-7003