The Potluck

Enbridge fined $3.3 million for aquifer breach during Line 3 construction

By: - September 17, 2021 11:06 am

An Enbridge sign in St. Ignace, Michigan. The company is building the Line 3 pipeline in Minnesota. Photo by Susan J. Demas/Michigan Advance.

The Minnesota Department of Natural Resources has ordered Enbridge to pay $3.3 million for piercing a groundwater aquifer during construction of its Line 3 oil pipeline in northwestern Minnesota, the DNR announced Thursday.

The rupture released more than 24 million gallons of groundwater near Clearbrook since January in what the DNR says is a violation of state environmental law. The agency’s civil enforcement order includes requirements for Enbridge to pay for additional monitoring and restorations of a rare type of wetland near the breach.

“Enbridge’s actions are clear violations of state law and also of public trust. This never should have happened, and we are holding the company fully accountable,” said DNR Commissioner Sarah Strommen in a news release. 

Enbridge spokesperson Juli Kellner said the company is still reviewing DNR enforcement documents. Enbridge has been working with the state since June to provide information and develop a corrective action plan, which is being implemented, she said.

“We share a strong desire to protect Minnesota waters and the environment and we are committed to restoration. We will continue to work closely with the agency on the resolution of this matter,” Kellner said.

Enbridge’s construction plans called for digging a trench up to 10 feet deep, according to the DNR. Instead, the company dug a trench 18 feet deep, with large metal sheets used for trench support installed as deep as 28 feet. This resulted in the aquifer breach, and Enbridge didn’t notify the DNR, the agency says.

Independent environmental monitors noticed “unusual amounts of water in the trench” in late January and worked on managing the water over the next several months. But the monitors enforce permit requirements — not construction plans — so they didn’t identify that Enbridge’s failure to follow construction plans led to an aquifer breach, according to the DNR. 

The DNR realized there was a potential aquifer breach in mid-June, started an investigation and ordered Enbridge to stop construction at the site until there was a plan in place to stop the flow, which is a “technically complex” issue requiring good data, the agency says. By mid-August, Enbridge submitted a plan to stop the groundwater flow.

The released groundwater has been pumped from the trench, filtered to remove sediment and released into a nearby wetland, the DNR says.

The DNR referred the incident to the Clearwater County Attorney for criminal prosecution, alleging the company violated a state law that prohibits appropriating “waters of the state without previously obtaining a permit from the commissioner.”

The civil enforcement order requires Enbridge to pay $300,000 for the groundwater loss, $250,000 for state monitoring of rare wetlands near the breach and $20,000 in administrative penalties. It also orders Enbridge to create a $2.75 million fund for restoration and mitigation in nearby wetlands, which the DNR will oversee.

The Minnesota Pollution Control Agency is also investigating potential Line 3 permitting violations in more than 10 spills of drilling fluid — a mix of mud and chemicals used as lubrication for drilling under rivers — at 12 river crossings during construction over the summer. 

Enbridge’s 337-mile Line 3 pipeline is almost complete, following six years of permitting, review and litigation and nearly a year of construction.

Our stories may be republished online or in print under Creative Commons license CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. We ask that you edit only for style or to shorten, provide proper attribution and link to our web site. Please see our republishing guidelines for use of photos and graphics.

Rilyn Eischens
Rilyn Eischens

Rilyn Eischens is a former data reporter for the Minnesota Reformer. Rilyn was born and raised in Minnesota and has worked in newsrooms in the Twin Cities, Iowa, Texas and most recently Virginia, where she covered education for The Staunton News Leader. She's an alumna of the Dow Jones News Fund data journalism program and the Minnesota Daily. When Rilyn isn't in the newsroom, she likes to read, add to her plant collection and try new recipes.