As Oil Industry Grows, Minnesotans Say Pipeline Operators Have Been Bad Neighbors

Less than a month after the Minnesota Public Utilities Commission gave Enbridge Inc. the nod to increase the capacity of its Minnesota tar sands pipeline, the Canadian company settled a federal lawsuit over 15 permit violations and oil spills in the state.

Enbridge did not admit to the violations but settled the lawsuit, filed in conjunction with the U.S. Justice Department and the Environmental Protection Agency, for $450,000.

According to the Minnesota Center for Environmental Advocacy, the punishment doesn’t fit the crime. Rather, it allows Enbridge to move forward with its operations without a clear incentive to change its ways.

Those wary of Enbridge have another reason to gripe about the company. In mid-July, it was given approval to increase its flow of Canadian tar sands oil to 570,000 barrels a day. The oil will be transported through the state and into Superior, Wis., where it will have access to Great Lakes markets.

For Minnesotans living in the vicinity of the tar sands pipeline, the deal wasn’t sealed with promises of jobs or cheaper gas prices. Minnesota is just a transportation route, a necessary avenue to push the oil to outside markets.

Those who sit on land that has been claimed by Enbridge by eminent domain receive compensation for their property, but the deal isn’t so sweet for those who subsequently see market values decrease and are given no choice but to surrender to a foreign company.

And with increased oil flow, there are new questions about the propensity for spills and the reputation of Enbridge when it comes to cleanup efforts.

Avoiding another Kalamazoo

In 2010, an Enbridge pipeline ruptured near Marshall, Mich., setting in motion the largest tar sands oil spill to date, with tens of thousands of gallons spilling into the Kalamazoo River.

Enbridge initially reported 819,000 gallons involved in the spill. In May, the company said it had recovered more than 1 million gallons from the Kalamazoo River — and they’re not done yet.

Three years later, the cleanup efforts continue, with an estimated 18,000 gallons of “recoverable oil” still covering the bottom of the river, according to the EPA.

The spill happened after an Enbridge pipeline carrying tar sands oil broke overnight. The spill went undetected, allowing tens of thousands of gallons of oil to flow into the river.

This is the scenario residents living along the Minnesota pipeline route dread.

Marty Cobenais knows that dread perhaps more than anyone who lives along the northern Minnesota pipeline route. As the pipeline organizer for the Indigenous Environmental Network, he surveys and monitors pipeline disasters throughout the U.S.

“The more pressure that goes through the pipeline, you increase the risk of spills,” he told Mint Press News while standing on a bridge overlooking the Mississippi River at a site where six pipelines flow.

“You obviously look at the Kalamazoo Michigan spill, but we’re at the Mississippi River — and it’s 20 yards across and there are six pipelines that go underneath us. So my question is, if there’s a spill here and it flows downstream, it would go into Lake Irving and Lake Bemidji,” he said.

In a sense, Cobenais grew up with an understanding that oil spills posed a very real threat. In 1979, a pipeline near Bemidji, Minn., ruptured, contaminating an aquifer. According to the U.S. Geological Survey, roughly 110,000 gallons of crude oil still remain in the subsurface.

A recent Mint Press News visit near the area of the spill revealed exposed pipelines running through ponds and swampland. That’s nothing new for Cobenais — he grew up playing along those very pipelines that still remain above ground.

A USGS researcher surveying the site told Mint Press News the intent is to discover how the leftover oil is reacting with the natural environment — to monitor whether it continues to spread and the impact it has on existing oil. The USGS studies, conducted annually, help response teams better understand the impact of oil spills.

“This was the site of an oil spill in 1979, and it has been established as a research site now where we look at natural attenuation of oil and better ways to figure out where an oil spill is, how best to manage that and things along that line,” Jared Trost, a USGS hydrologist, told Mint Press News.

Yet this only applies to crude oil — not the Canadian tar sand oil that flows through the Bemidji area today, the same type of oil that is still being fetched out of the Kalamazoo River. It’s the same type of oil that devastated a residential community in Mayflower, Ark., and the same oil that will be pumped through the 1,700-mile Keystone XL pipeline if approved by President Barack Obama.

“Here, we’re not doing that [tar sands oil spill] research,” Trost said. “I won’t say there aren’t people doing that kind of research — I know people like the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency is interested in understanding because they’ve got different ways that they transport crude now, to get the really heavy crude, and so they’re interested. There isn’t as much known about that.”

Homeowners’ battle

Bill Schroeder lives just outside of Bemidji and has an Enbridge pipeline running through his property. A local gas station owner, Schroeder’s opposition to Enbridge is rooted in disputes over the company’s access to his property, which was eventually claimed by Enbridge through eminent domain.

His relationship with Enbridge has been riddled with controversy, stemming from what he claims has been a series of false promises and hidden agendas.

“They weren’t supposed to be on my property doing anything, and I come home one day and there are ‘dozers out there cutting down all my trees without permission,” he told Mint Press News. “They weren’t supposed to be going through there yet. They assured me they’d call me ahead of time … they never really follow up with what they tell you.”

That was back in 2009. Prior to the takeover, he settled with Enbridge before the eminent domain case went to court. He accepted what he saw as the best offer, understanding that court costs alone were too much to bear.

Schroeder was paid for his land, but he says his market value has declined. Four good acres that were previously considered some of the best on his 40-acre plot are now, for all intents and purposes, no longer his.

“They take your land and they don’t pay you nothing for it, and you can’t use it,” he said. “You can’t utilize your own land, it’s not your property anymore. When it comes to taxes it’s still your land, but when it comes to wanting to do what you want to do with your land, it’s not.”

As far as potential spills and contamination, Schroeder said local residents are always nervous about the possibility. In 2007, two maintenance workers were killed in a crude oil pipeline fire near Clearbrook, Minn. According to the Star Tribune, workers were repairing a 34-inch Enbridge pipeline when oil leaked and fumes were ignited.

“I’m not excited about having my house ever blow up,” Schroeder said.

Others living in northern Minnesota’s pipeline territory pair their arguments about local impact with the broader debate about the degradation of Canadian wilderness and the impact tar sand extraction has on climate change.

John Munter of Warba, Minn., lives roughly 4 miles from the Enbridge pipeline that will increase its Canadian tar sands flow. For years, he had opposed the Keystone XL project but didn’t realize he was so close to another potentially hazardous pipeline.

While pointing to the Kalamazoo River spill and the possibility that Minnesota could experience the same fate, he says the situation for First Nations people in Alberta is one that pulls on his heart strings.

“First Nations people can’t fish and hunt, because they know it’s all contaminated up there,” he told Mint Press News. “That’s the main reason I got involved in the pipeline.”

Munter was on hand when the Minnesota Utilities Commission approved the increased flow in the Enbridge pipeline. While public meetings were held in nearby towns, he says the majority of residents living near the pipeline haven’t a clue — and that’s why Enbridge continues to win its battles.