Citizen scientist group: More problems along Line 3 pipeline corridor suspected

Enbridge’s oil replacement pipeline known as Line 3 has officially been in operation for more than a year. The construction of the pipeline in Northern Minnesota led to several aquifer breaches, millions of dollars in fines for the company and even criminal charges.

While the pipeline has been a flashpoint for environmentalists, tribal communities and the oil industry, internal records from the state and the company itself reveal Enbridge was aware of some problems a lot earlier than the company let on.

Citizen scientists keep watch

On a recent cold April day in Northern Minnesota, a group of citizen scientists hiked their way through fresh snow to continue their work monitoring the Line 3 oil pipeline corridor. The pipeline spans more than 300 miles of Minnesota wilderness from Canada to Superior, Wisconsin.

"Our team regularly snowshoes and/or canoes and has to travel significantly to access these sites that are far away from the public eye," said Emma ‘Haze’ Harrison, a volunteer with the group Waadookawaad Amikwag (which translates to "those who help beaver.")

The oil pipeline crosses several tribal treaty areas, which is land once taken from Native Americans in exchange, in part, for preserving their right to hunt, fish and gather on the land.

Victoria McMillen is an Indigenous consultant for Waadookawaad Amikwag.

"[The pipeline] is a big scar on the land because this is her body," McMillen said. "They dredge, they trenched all the way through and then they put an implant in."

McMillen fears damage done by the pipeline has compromised the land’s natural resources, from the wild rice beds to the waters that sustain them. 

"It’s a violation of our treaty rights," McMillen said.

Breaches and fines

Line 3 became fully operational in October 2021. However, case records obtained by the FOX 9 Investigators reveal Enbridge was aware of problems a lot sooner than the company let on.

In Clearwater County, an uncontrolled water flow was first noticed in January 2021 after large sheets of metal used to reinforce the soil breached an aquifer.

When an aquifer is breached, it can create quicksand-like conditions and compromise the natural flow of groundwater, with the potential to disrupt the environment.

State records reveal Enbridge did not notify the state of the problem at first – and even after the company issued itself an "unacceptable report" in March 2021, Enbridge again did not bring the issue to the state’s attention.

Internal emails reveal it wasn’t until six months after the problem was first detected that the state caught wind of it. One state official in an email called it a "serious situation" with about 15 gallons of water per minute gushing out of the aquifer.

In total, three aquifer breaches were identified by the state, which led to $11 million in fines for Enbridge. The company claims on its website to have fixed those breaches.

Enbridge declined the FOX 9 Investigators request for an interview but referred to company-produced videos that detail their restoration efforts.

"We’re all working together to make sure that we’re not impacting the resources," one Enbridge-produced video said.

In a statement to the FOX 9 Investigators, a spokesperson for Enbridge said: "We sincerely regret this happened and are working with industry partners to improve procedures to prevent this from happening again."

However, the company’s public messaging during the ramp up to putting the pipeline into operation neglected any mention of the aquifer breaches, including a previous interview in September 2021 with FOX 9 prior to the pipeline becoming functional.

When asked how confident Enbridge is that the new pipeline would not compromise tribal resources or the environment at large, company spokesperson Mike Fernandez responded: "Because we’ve done the work, because we’ve followed the law, followed the regulation." 

New concerns

Jeffrey Broberg is a geologist with four decades experience under his belt, including 10 years working in the oil industry. He now works with the citizen science group Waadookawaad Amikwag.

He’s concerned about the potential problems within the pipeline corridor, like aquifer breaches near the Fond du Lac reservation. 

"[Fond du Lac] reported the flow from that have having been 219 million gallons of water. That's about the same amount of water that a town of 6000 people uses in a year as a comparison," Broberg said. "That’s how much was lost out of that one breach."

Broberg analyzed thermal images captured during third-party flyovers of the pipeline corridor, looking for signs of more problems.

"I ended up identifying 45 sites in the 355 miles that had emerging groundwater right on the pipeline within the corridor," Broberg said. "They’re in every county all the way from North Dakota through the headwaters of the Mississippi."

Enbridge officials said the company has flown over and walked the pipeline route repeatedly. As for any other potential problem sites, a company spokesperson said: "Enbridge has not been made aware of any specific locations."

The Minnesota Department of Natural Resources has not confirmed any additional aquifer breaches aside from the three previously identified. State officials said the agency is continuing to assess areas all along the corridor.

The citizen scientists and volunteers like Victoria McMillen who continue to monitor conditions along the pipeline corridor are seeking "no more harm." They’re also seeking accountability where it matters.

"We're under no illusion, we're not shutting down the pipeline. We're not going to impair the flow of 750,000 barrels a day -- that stopped when they turned it on," said Broberg. "But we want to make sure that our communities are safe, that if the water has been disturbed and it needs to be restored, if it can't be restored, they need to be accepting responsibility for it in perpetuity."

While the state attorney general filed criminal charges against Enbridge for violations related to an aquifer breach, the company expects those charges to be dropped as part of the settlement agreement with the state, which also includes restoration of the land.