The Potluck

Tribes object to Enbridge ‘dewatering’ permit as drought threatens wild rice

By: - June 23, 2021 9:03 pm

More than 2,000 people converged on northern Minnesota to oppose further construction of Enbridge’s Line 3 pipeline on June 7, 2021. Photo by Rilyn Eischens/Minnesota Reformer.

The president of the Minnesota Chippewa Tribe on Tuesday sent a letter to Gov. Tim Walz raising concerns that the Department of Natural Resources didn’t sufficiently engage with tribes before it approved a change to a permit for Enbridge’s Line 3 oil pipeline this month.

The permit change will allow Enbridge to extract 4.9 billion gallons of groundwater while constructing its 337-mile pipeline across northern Minnesota — nearly a tenfold increase from the original permit, which gave permission to remove 510.5 million gallons of water.

In the letter, Minnesota Chippewa Tribe President Cathy Chavers wrote that the White Earth Nation wasn’t given enough notice, and that removing so much water will harm wild rice near the route. Wild rice is a sacred food for the Ojibwe. She requested that Walz direct the DNR to rescind the amended permit until the department consults with White Earth and other affected tribes.

“Time is of the essence,” Chavers wrote.

Enbridge requested the increase to its “dewatering” permit — removing water from a construction site to make building easier — after encountering more groundwater along the route than expected, according to a DNR document. The company initially estimated water volume based on experiences building the Alberta Clipper Pipeline, which also crosses northern Minnesota.

In an email to the Reformer, Enbridge spokesperson Juli Kellner said the letter is “misleading on a number of fronts.”

The increased volume is related to specific sites along the pipeline trench and the company’s use of wellpoint systems, rather than sump pump systems, to extract water. Wellpoint systems extract cleaner water but larger volumes than traditional sump pumps, Kellner said.

The water is “immediately discharged back into the surrounding area and allowed to infiltrate; therefore, it will not reduce the amount of available groundwater in any given area,” Kellner wrote in the email.

Michael Fairbanks, chairman of the White Earth Nation, said in a Reformer interview the tribe was alerted of the permit change in an email. The DNR should have at least called the tribe to discuss the amendment, he said.

The DNR document describes the department meeting with “tribal natural resources staff,” during which they discussed compliance with the project’s environmental impact statement. A DNR spokesperson did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

The news was especially alarming during a drought, Fairbanks said. Tribal members were already concerned about the health of Lower Rice Lake, an important wild rice habitat that he called the “heartbeat of White Earth and our food.”

“Our upcoming (wild rice) harvest was in jeopardy. Then all the sudden we get a report that Enbridge was allowed (nearly) 5 billion more gallons of water,” Fairbanks said. “It raised so many red flags for us.”

Kellner said the company’s plans protect wild rice waters. Line 3 contractors have not and will not remove water from Upper and Lower Rice Lake, she said.

White Earth is holding a run/walk around Rice Lake Thursday to raise awareness of the permit change and the importance of the water, Fairbanks said.

“We want to bring awareness and show our support, that we care for our wild rice and our livelihood,” he said.

Enbridge’s Line 3 pipeline is roughly 60% complete and expected to be operational by the end of 2021, after more than six years of permitting, review and litigation.

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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.