Minnesota Groups Fear Environmental Shortcuts in Enbridge's Plan to Rebuild Faulty Pipeline

Pipeline company agreed to repairs to its aging Line 3 in settlement over Kalamazoo spill, but groups want to assure a full state environmental review.

Enbridge's Michigan spill in 2010 has other states worried about its pipelines

The Enbridge spill in Michigan's Kalamazoo River has the people of Minnesota concerned about the company's plans to restore a pipeline running through that state. Credit: Getty Images

As the Canadian company Enbridge faces a proposed federal deadline to replace an aging pipeline, environmental organizations in Minnesota are raising concerns the company is using that as leverage with state regulators to bypass a rigorous environmental review.
 
A battle has been brewing over the approval process for the new pipeline ever since a settlement was announced between the federal government and the company over a massive oil spill in Michigan six years ago.
 
The pipeline in question is the 1,100-mile Line 3, which originates in Alberta, Canada and has been in operation since 1968, likely carrying tar sands oil to its terminal in Superior, Wisc. It has been plagued by hundreds of structural integrity problems that include corrosion and cracking.
 
Although activists and Enbridge agree that the existing Line 3 that runs across the state is decaying, opponents say it's vital to understand all the potential risks of a new pipeline, which would cross sensitive wilderness areas and pristine watersheds.
 
And a court agreed last year, ruling that the state must do a full environmental impact statement before Line 3 can be permitted, over the objections of Enbridge.
 
But things became more complicated in July, when a settlement was reached between the company, the Environmental Protection Agency and the Justice Department over the 2010 spill of more than 1 million gallons of tar sands oil into Michigan's Kalamazoo River from a rupture in the company's Line 6B.
 

As part of a consent decree, Enbridge was told to replace its Line 3 segment in the United States, which runs almost entirely within Minnesota. And it set a deadline of Dec. 31, 2017. If the company fails to meet it, it will be required to provide extensive and costly safety measures to safeguard the old line. 

Enbridge's Michigan spill in 2010 has other states worried about its pipelines

But meeting the Justice Department's deadline for replacing Line 3 is impossible. Minnesota officials haven't agreed to permit the new pipeline, and that decision isn't expected until fall 2017. The rigorous work required for the environmental impact statement won't be done until after April 2018.

Work couldn't be completed until 2019 at the earliest—long past the federal deadline.

Now, environmental groups fear that Enbridge is trying to fast-track the work before a thorough review is done, using the federal settlement as justification. They cite public comments by Enbridge officials and statements in filings with the Minnesota PUC. 

The issue erupted during an open comment period on terms of the consent decree that ended last week. The Minnesota Center for Environmental Advocacy (MCEA) and Friends of the Headwaters have led the vocal opposition.

"The Department of Justice has no business ordering someone to build a tar sands pipeline through our state," said Kevin Lee, an attorney for MCEA. "We see the urgency being expressed by Enbridge as a result of this proposed consent decree as a self-serving attempt to influence the permitting process that is the state's power alone."

Enbridge's plan to spend $7.5 billion to replace and greatly increase the capacity of Line 3 is the most ambitious in its history. The project is part of its plans for a network of new and expanded pipelines that would carry tar sands into the U.S.

In an article in a North Dakota newspaper, Enbridge project manager Barry Simonson said, "We hope [the Justice Department consent decree] does instill a new sense of urgency at all levels of the [Minnesota] government, from the governor's office down to the appropriate agencies underneath the governor and his staff."

The company also cited the urgency of replacing Line 3 in a letter to the PUC opposing additional hearings on the new Line 3 project.

Michael Barnes, an Enbridge spokesman, reiterated the company's position of pushing forward with the project as quickly as possible.

"Enbridge intends to continue engaging at all levels of government to seek expediency on approvals for Line 3's replacement," Barnes said. "We remain committed to following the state and federal processes and meeting all state and federal laws and regulations."

The fight over this pipeline is yet another example of the unprecedented opposition to pipeline projects in which companies are being called ahead of time to address potential environmental damage if leaks were to occur.

In North Dakota, that opposition has brought thousands of protesters together to demonstrate against the construction of the Dakota Access pipeline, a $3.7 billion project that would ferry 470,000 barrels of crude oil a day from the Bakken oil fields 1,172 miles across four states.

A national spotlight has been focused on the project as the  Standing Rock Sioux tribe has gained widespread support in its appeal that the pipeline could threaten their environmental and economic well-being, as well as destroy historic, religious, and cultural sites. The pipeline, being built by Texas-based Energy Transfer Partners, is more than half built already, complicating their plight.

In Minnesota, work is far from even getting started on a new Line 3. Enbridge has pushed its hopes to expedite the work, setting up the conflict with environmental groups during the recent public comment period on the consent decree.

The Justice Department did not respond to questions from InsideClimate News, though Lee said the agency has said the consent decree is not intended to interfere with the ongoing environmental review and permitting procedures in Minnesota. 

Meanwhile, state officials have said they are not expediting anything.

In the wake of the court ruling a year ago, the Minnesota PUC directed a full environmental impact statement for the segment of new Line 3 that would cut diagonally through the state. The most stringent review that the state can require orders in-depth studies to examine possible harm to a number of environmental components, including water sources, wetlands and wildlife habitat. 

Enbridge had argued that a full EIS was unnecessary because less intensive alternative environmental reviews were sufficient to satisfy Minnesota's permitting process.

In a letter to the Justice Department, the Minnesota PUC cautioned that approval of new Line 3 is not a done deal.

"The Commission cannot at this time estimate when the need and route permit proceedings for New Line 3 will be completed, nor can it say whether Enbridge's need and route applications for the construction of New Line 3 will be approved, modified, or rejected," according to a letter by Dan Wolf, the PUC's executive secretary, to the Justice Department.

Wolf said the state's environmental review will proceed as scheduled and a final report will not be ready for consideration until sometime after April 2018.

"We respect and appreciate the process that was used to arrive at the consent decree, but as the regulatory body with the responsibility to grant or deny a route permit there is still the normal regulatory process that will be followed," Wolf said in an interview with InsideClimate News.

The Justice Department will now review the comments to decide if any changes to the consent decree are warranted, including altering the Line 3 deadline, before seeking final approval of the deal in federal court.

Opponents are urging clarity from the department.

"The 2010 Kalamazoo oil spill was a devastating event that illustrates first and foremost the need to adequately understand the risks and impacts of pipeline spills before those risks are undertaken," according to a letter to the U.S. Department of Justice from Kathryn M. Hoffman, interim legal director of the Minnesota Center for Environmental Advocacy.

"Should this Consent Decree be understood as bearing federal approval of an expedited environmental review and permitting process for the L3R Project, the document would effectively require the State of Minnesota to bear the risks of those spills without the benefit of adequate study and evaluation beforehand."

Terms of the settlement, spelled out in a consent decree that still must be approved by a federal judge, include a $62 million fine and the requirement that Enbridge spend at least $110 million on a series of spill prevention safeguards and other improvements along nearly 2,000 miles of its pipeline system in the Great Lakes region.

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