Enbridge faces $3.32 million in fines, possible criminal charges after piercing major aquifer

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Lorie Shaull

An Enbridge Line 3 construction worker walks on-site in Aitkin County, MN.

After failing to notify the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources (DNR) of a pierced aquifer in Clearbrook, MN, Enbridge faces $3.32 million in fines for violating Minnesota state environmental laws.
The Line 3 pipeline began construction in Dec. 2020 and is replacing an aging and deteriorating pipeline by what Enbridge, the company responsible for its construction, claims will be a safer and more efficiently functioning pipeline. It will transport nearly one million barrels of tar sand daily from Canada to Wisconsin and will cut through treaty territory of Indigenous tribes in Minnesota, along with environmentally sensitive areas such as the Mississippi River headwaters and Lake Superior. Advocates for Line 3 point out America’s pressing oil demand and that pipelines as forms of transport for oil are safer than trucks or trains. Its construction has also brought massive economic benefits to Minnesota.

Within one month of Enbridge’s Line 3 pipeline construction, an artesian aquifer (freshwater supply trapped in impermeable rock with positive pressure applied to it) was disturbed, resulting in more than 24 million gallons of leaked water. Enbridge gave no alert of the issue to the DNR. It wasn’t until mid-June, five months after the incident, that the DNR became aware of the situation, when private construction monitors noticed water pooling in trenches created for the pipeline. Sophomore Kate Hanf expressed disappointment in the company and their handling of the situation. “I think Enbridge knew they messed up and they were just trying to cover it up, and that’s really frustrating,” she said.

I think Enbridge knew they messed up and they were just trying to cover it up, and that’s really frustrating”

— Kate Hanf

Enbridge stated that they plan to cooperate with the DNR and resolve the issue, and on Thursday, Sept. 16th the DNR announced the fines publicly. “Enbridge has been working with the DNR since June to provide the required site information and approval of a corrective action plan which is currently being implemented,” Enbridge spokesperson Juli Kellner said. “We share a strong desire to protect Minnesota waters and the environment and are committed to restoration. We will continue to work closely with the agency on the resolution of this matter.”

The DNR has now turned the case over to the Clearwater County Attorney’s Office to determine if Enbridge will be criminally charged.

At the site of the incident, Enbridge had informed the DNR that they committed to digging 8-10 feet into the ground, yet they instead went down 18 feet, ultimately pushing sheet piling, metal excavation supports, down 24 feet and breaching the aquifer. This incompliance with construction plans in Clearbrook was especially catastrophic due to the sensitive wetland the pipeline was near and the aquifer water flooded into.

Amid these advancements, the pipeline approaches 90 percent completion, and controversy persists between those who support and oppose the pipeline. Indigenous leader Winona LaDuke, executive director Honor our Earth, released a statement saying, “Enbridge is a rogue corporation that caused the largest inland oil spill in US history and has now damaged Minnesota’s most precious waters during construction of the Line 3 tar sands pipeline”. To some opposing the pipeline in fear of major crises like oil spills, the massive aquifer breach backs their concerns.

In the midst of this crisis, Minnesota considers criminalizing pipeline protests, and arrested nearly 70 protesters for charges of disorderly conduct, third-degree riot and felony threats of violence at the Governor’s mansion on August 28th. Many advocates urge President Joe Biden to take action in blocking the pipeline’s construction, which he has shown no recent sign of doing. Line 3 is expected to begin carrying oil by the end of 2021.