AITKIN COUNTY — The camp was quiet when Winona LaDuke stepped outside to share the news: Enbridge didn’t have permission to drill under the frozen Mississippi River. Construction on that piece of the Line 3 oil pipeline would be delayed — at least as long as the frigid weather held.

LaDuke had barely finished the sentence when cheers and shouts erupted from the small group gathered around her. “That buys us some time,” someone said. “A breath of relief.”

The celebratory moment was a welcome one for the exhausted crew of pipeline opponents. Many of them had put their lives on hold since construction started in December, organizing against the Line 3 replacement project and turning a two-story home in Aitkin County — just a few hundred feet from the pipeline’s river crossing — into a headquarters for “water protectors,” as they call themselves.

For pipeline workers, however, any delay is unwelcome; the beginning of construction was a long-awaited chance to get back to work after the pandemic hobbled the industry. Thousands of workers were unemployed before the Line 3 project, like Jeremy Gunderson, a steward with the International Union of Operating Engineers Local 49. 

“We’re real people with families who need food on the table,” Gunderson said. “A great percentage of us consider ourselves conservationists, and we take pride in our work and doing it right.”

Even as the battle over the pipeline rages on, the new Line 3 is on track to be completed by the end of 2021, following six years of state review, permitting and litigation, and a year of construction — and a fierce fight that both sides say is about more than a pipeline. 

The $2.6 billion project is one of the most contentious in recent state history, exposing rifts in the highest levels of state government — Gov. Tim Walz supports it; Lt. Gov. Peggy Flanagan opposes it — down to Minnesota’s smallest communities. It’s brought a sense of urgency to longstanding issues: Relations with Native American people, struggling rural economies, the long-term consequences of our reliance on oil.

Once complete, the pipeline will stretch more than 300 miles across northern Minnesota, carrying nearly 32 million gallons of crude oil each day from Hardisty, Alberta, to Superior, Wisconsin. It’s the work of Enbridge, Inc., a Canadian energy company that operates the world’s largest pipeline system — 17,000 miles across North America.

The oil’s Albertan provenance is significant: Getting it out of the ground is energy and carbon intensive, making it a top target of climate change activists. And opponents say the pipeline will eventually leak, spilling sticky, hard-to-clean crude oil into Minnesota’s delicate forests and waters.

For Native American people, the cultural significance of these lands makes the risk intolerable. The project violates their treaty rights, they say, another injustice in the state’s long history of mistreating Native Americans.

“I spent seven years trying to keep this from happening. I wanted the system to work — I really did. And this is what we’re left with. That’s how they treat Indian people here,” said LaDuke, director of Indigenous environmental group Honor the Earth. “So I’m going to stand here and do everything I can to stop them.”

Supporters say the new pipeline is necessary to meet demand for oil and to replace the existing Line 3, a 50-year-old pipeline responsible for the biggest inland oil spill in U.S. history.

The massive project is also a lifeline for more than 8,000 workers, supporters say, and a boon for rural towns suffering after months of COVID-19 shutdowns.

“Rural people, we have no problem with it. Of course, we’re outstate — rocks and cows, you know. What do we know?” said Lonnie Lee, mayor of Hill City, a town of about 650 people along the route. (“Rocks and cows” is a phrase some people in rural Minnesota use to depict how urban people supposedly denigrate them.) “We’re on our way up economically. It’s helped to take the place of what COVID knocked down — the pipeline has brought us back.”

‘I’m trying to protect everyone’s water’

LaDuke bought the “water protectors” house in 2019, a strategic move inspired by the protests against the Dakota Access Pipeline in 2016. Line 3 opponents have turned the property into one of several permanent camps across the pipeline’s path in Minnesota.

People on both sides often say they don’t want Line 3 to become “another Standing Rock.” Opponents are referencing the police violence against protesters and the completion of the Dakota Access Pipeline. Pipeline supporters are referring to the construction delays and demonstrations that swelled to thousands of people.

So far, the Minnesota camps are small in comparison. People come to the Aitkin County camp from as far away as Spokane, Washington, and from homes just miles down the road. Their goal: Delay construction, at least until the courts hear the pending legal challenges and, opponents hope, block the project.

They walk to the construction site next door with bullhorns most mornings, and they coordinate demonstrations along the route that attract hundreds of people. Around the campfire, they discuss environmental permitting and how to create sustainable rural economies.

Even with all this activity, the remote lot is often silent, except for the road noise from trucks that rumble past with equipment several times every hour.

The trucks turn onto a narrow dirt road just down the street from the house, and continue past a fence covered in no trespassing signs to an opening in the forest. There, a 50-foot throughway has been cleared of both trees and snow as far as the eye can see to make way for the 72-foot-long steel pipes. Enbridge security officers are a fixture at this site and other construction zones easily accessible to the public. 

Michael Fairbanks, chairman of the White Earth Nation, visited the construction site for the first time in early January.

“It’s horrible. It’s just horrible — I don’t know how to describe it,” Fairbanks said as he looked over the dirt path cut through the trees. “They’re just tearing up our land.”

The White Earth Band of Ojibwe and other Minnesota tribes have taken a number of legal actions aimed at stopping the construction, arguing that the line crosses lands that 19th-century treaties guarantee Native Americans the right to use.

The pipeline will cross under a number of rivers and watersheds, including Lake Superior’s. Fairbanks, like many opponents, fears that a leak would contaminate the state’s beloved waterways and decimate the nearby wild rice beds that are central to Ojibwe culture.

“My job as an elected official is to protect our children’s and our grandchildren’s and great grandchildren’s water,” he said. “I’m trying to protect everyone’s water.”

Pipelines are the safest way to transport oil on land — far more reliable than trucks or trains — but spills are still relatively common. From 2010 to 2019, more than 15 million gallons of oil leaked from pipelines as a result of more than 900 accidents across the country, according to federal data. There was roughly one accident per 2,000 miles of pipeline in 2019.

Close-to-home leaks from other Enbridge pipelines loom over the current project. In 2010, an Enbridge pipeline spewed more than 800,000 gallons of oil into a creek that led to the Kalamazoo River in Michigan, requiring a yearslong cleanup effort that cost more than $1 billion. The existing Line 3 pipeline in Minnesota ruptured in 1991, releasing 1.7 million gallons of oil near Grand Rapids.

Pipeline opponents say these disasters are evidence against the new line; supporters say they show how necessary it is.

Operating Engineers Local 49’s Gunderson said the new pipeline will be far safer than the existing Line 3, which has carried oil through Minnesota since the 1960s and requires increasingly intensive upkeep each year. Gunderson, a self-described conservationist, said he and his colleagues want the line to be as safe as possible, and so does Enbridge. Plus, there’s a financial incentive to get it right the first time.

“Enbridge does put a very high emphasis on doing things right,” Gunderson said. “It’s very expensive if we don’t do something right, and we have to go back and dig it up. And Enbridge isn’t going to make any money if all this oil were to spill into the ground.”

The proposal went through years of extensive review and has received permits from a host of state and federal agencies, Enbridge officials point out. Trevor Lindblom, an Enbridge project manager who oversees 80 miles of pipeline construction, said safety checks are built into every step of construction and operation — from taking X-rays of every weld to using specialized tools that can detect potential faults the size of a pinhead inside the pipes. 

Even early in the construction process, crews care for the land, Lindblom said. To aid restoration, workers bend pipes to match the exact gradient of the landscape above them, and keep the topsoil and subsoils separate during trench digging so new seedlings can sprout in nutrient-rich soil.

‘These are real people out here’

Thirty miles northwest of the Aitkin County camp, crews just outside Hill City worked in a mobile assembly line along a section of pipeline. In single-digit temperatures, they moved from joint to joint to align the pipes and weld the interior, then the exterior seams. Orange signs along the road near the job site read “PIPELINE CONSTRUCTION AHEAD.” One had been spray painted to read “ENVIRO TERRORISM AHEAD.”

“I wish people could see this, that these are real people out here. They’re professionals,” Lindblom said as another crew sprayed anti-corrosion coating on a section of pipe.

Roughly 5,000 welders, equipment operators and laborers were working on the Line 3 replacement by late January, all of them union members and half of them Minnesotans. The jobs couldn’t have come at a better time, said Kevin Pranis, marketing manager for the Minnesota and North Dakota district of the Laborers International Union of North America.

COVID-19 and the economic downturn resulted in slowed construction work last year and many canceled projects in 2021 — meaning thousands of laborers were out of work and at risk of losing their health care coverage during a pandemic, Pranis said.

For Shanai Matteson, the promise of jobs isn’t reason enough to put a pipeline through northern Minnesota. Matteson’s grandmother was born where the line will cross the nearby Willow River, and her extended family sold the rights to Enbridge to lay the pipeline through the land. In the fall, Matteson moved with her two children to the house in Aitkin County to organize against the pipeline full-time.

Matteson said she wants a different future for her hometown, one in which residents have access to long-term work in sustainable industries.

“My kids are generation six in northern Minnesota, so I know the booms and busts. I know that these kinds of jobs and this kind of economic development is attractive,” Matteson said. “But it doesn’t actually lead to long-term resilience.”

Still, some residents near the pipeline have welcomed the influx of workers, even if it will be a short-lived boost. In Hill City, the pandemic “really put a bind on the economy” as tourism slowed and local businesses suffered, said Mayor Lonnie Lee. Lee said he trusts that Enbridge will clean up any spills if the pipeline does leak. 

Not all locals see the increased traffic as a good thing. Research shows that activity by extractive industries, like oil and mining, is linked to increased crime and human trafficking. Native American women are disproportionately affected.

Tania Aubid, a member of the Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe, said she and other Native American women in the area have been the targets of increasingly violent rhetoric and actions from locals and workers alike since the project was approved. Late last year, Aubid’s anti-Line 3 lawn sign was shot 19 times, Aubid said, and she’s already heard of Native American women being harassed at gas stations near the line.

Aubid is angry, but she’s not surprised.

“To me, that’s just a prelude of what’s to come next when they start drilling,” she said. “This has been happening for generations in my family — facing up against these non-Natives in this community as far as racism goes, ever since they started laying that first pipeline, ever since they started putting that railroad in (in the 1800s).”

Enbridge rejects the charge that the project will lead to an increase in human trafficking. State permits required the company to develop a human trafficking prevention plan with input from government officials and Minnesota tribes, and all workers go through mandatory human trafficking awareness training. The company says they have a zero-tolerance policy for anyone associated with their projects engaging in exploitation or abuse.

As construction barrels on, the battle over the pipeline is sure to intensify.

Gunderson said he’s used to some tension after working on the Dakota Access Pipeline. He tries to talk with the protesters who approach him at the grocery store and the gas station, he said. But pipeline opponents — including members of his own family — don’t seem interested.

“It gets frustrating,” he said. “Oil is not going to go away. Even if you could snap your fingers and meet all of our transportation goals on renewable energy tomorrow — the plastics, the medical industry alone tells us oil is not going away.”

The Dakota Access Pipeline was formative for Aubid, too. She protested the pipeline for nine months, went on a hunger strike for 28 days and was arrested once. Now facing a pipeline just miles away from her home, she said she’s not backing down anytime soon. 

“Oh yeah,” she said. “I’m ready to do it again.”