‘Unconscionable and appalling’: Doctors on Enbridge Line 3 — Opinion

People opposed to Enbridge’s Line 3 pipeline trekked through a marsh to a site where the pipeline will cross the Mississippi River on June 7, 2021. Photo by Rilyn Eischens/Minnesota Reformer.

As physicians, our duty is to protect the health of all Minnesotans, now and for the future. As daily witnesses to the importance of clean air, water, and land to human health, we are deeply distressed about the Enbridge Line 3 tar sands oil pipeline currently under construction across our state and through 1855 Treaty lands. 

On July 20, we traveled to northern Minnesota to better understand the efforts of Indigenous-led water protectors, who tirelessly worked for seven years through legal and political channels to prevent Line 3’s construction, and why they are now risking arrest — and their lives.  

What we witnessed through the haze of smoke from wildfires in Canada was unconscionable and appalling. We visited Upper Rice Lake, where historically low water levels due to climate change-related drought threaten this year’s wild rice crop. Wild rice is an extremely nutritious food and important economic resource for many communities. Recent DNR permits — bypassing discussion with Indigenous leaders — allow Enbridge to draw 5 billion gallons of ground and surface water. This 10-fold increase from the company’s originally requested amount further threatens this unique food ecosystem.

Standing on the Great River Road where the Mississippi River is little more than five feet across, we observed Enbridge workers scrambling to suction up a viscous sludge known as drilling mud, which leaked into the surrounding wetlands as they drilled under the river. The Mississippi River watershed covers 40% of the continental United States and supplies drinking water for more than 50 U.S cities. Any toxic substances seeping into the Mississippi from Line 3 will affect millions of people downstream. Given that the human body is over 60% water, contaminants in water inevitably find their way into our bodies and cause harm. 

Outside of the watchful eye of Indigenous water protectors, we saw no one else monitoring as Enbridge churns through the wetlands and headwaters of the most important river in the country. Those who do show up to observe the process and demand accountability are met with intimidation. We watched in horror as an Enbridge truck driver revved his engine at women water protectors peacefully protesting.  Aside from the immediate physical threat of that hostile incident, chronic stress associated with such acts of intimidation that daily target women and Indigenous communities leads to chronic disease.

Too often we hear narratives in public discourse and our medical training and practices that perpetuate the idea that innately “bad” biology and behavior cause disease — that essentially people are to blame for their poor health. In our experience, however, social forces lie at the root of human health. Through this lens, we see that Indigenous communities suffer some of the highest rates of diabetes in the world not because of inherently poor lifestyle choices but because of forced disconnection with land, intentional replacement of their traditional diet with processed foods, and cultural erasure by the U.S. government. COVID-19 has ravaged Black, Indigenous and Latino communities whose bodies were primed for severe infection not by a set of genes they were born with but by histories of oppression that altered their endocrine, immune and cardiovascular systems in ways that created vulnerability to out of control inflammation.  

The toxicity and weathering of racism, colonialism, capitalism and patriarchy damage the human body just as culture, community and social cohesion preserve and heal the body. Such upstream social forces, whether harmful or healing, result from human decision and action. This means we can do something to bend the imprint of social forces on human health away from harm and towards healing.

Upstream at the headwaters of the Mississippi, we also witnessed courage and visionary leadership. Indigenous leaders demonstrated that reciprocity and caring for each other and the Earth are indispensable for our survival. Scientists echoed how the health of water, land, animals and humans are inextricably intertwined. Water protectors bravely obstructed the greed and exploitation of capitalism with their bodies. 

Despite the obviously disastrous downstream consequences of Line 3, Gov. Tim Walz and President Joe Biden are failing to act to protect our health. While climate change blankets us with stifling heat, suffocating wildfire smoke and devastating drought this summer, they continue allowing a pipeline with projected carbon emissions equivalent to building 50 new coal-fired power plants. 

For a day, drilling under the Mississippi River stopped, thanks to water protectors witnessing and reporting the spill. This momentary pause must be made permanent.  Our visit made clear that the water protectors are willing to give their all because it is right, just and our only option for preserving the health of the earth, ourselves, our children and future generations.  

As doctors, our job is to work upstream to promote the health of everyone downstream. Thus, we stand with the water protectors in their efforts to Stop Line 3 and call for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to immediately withdraw permits for its construction. 

Our health depends on it — we all live downstream.

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Aarti Bhatt
Aarti Bhatt

Aarti Bhatt MD is an assistant professor of medicine and pediatrics at the University of Minnesota.

Prasanna Vankina

Prasanna Vankina is a second-year medical student at the University of Minnesota.

Michael Westerhaus
Michael Westerhaus

Michael Westerhaus is an assistant professor of medicine at the University of Minnesota and a current Bush Fellow.