For two days last November, a plane fitted with high-definition thermal imaging equipment flew over the 340-mile length of the Line 3 pipeline through Minnesota. He was looking for evidence of other construction-related damage to the state’s aquifers.
Oil has been flowing through the completed pipeline for months now, but the White Earth Band of Ojibwe – Minnesota’s largest Native American tribe with around 20,000 members – continues to fight the project in court and through monitoring efforts extraordinary.
The group now says their aerial imagery has found six other sites that indicate potential breaches of public groundwater resources.
Enbridge and the state Department of Natural Resources (DNR) say they conducted their own aerial checks and found no breaches beyond the three the DNR confirmed on March 20, which spilled nearly $300 million. gallons of groundwater – about what a city the size of Brainerd would use in a year.
But the first of the violations remained secret for at least five months. The band and environmental groups such as the Sierra Club and MN350, which shared the cost of the $52,000 overflight, say they don’t trust the process to protect resources.
“The environment is so important to us, our natural environment,” said Dawn Goodwin, a citizen of White Earth, a key pipeline opponent and co-founder of RISE Coalition, an Indigenous women’s environmental group. “I live here and my ancestors lived here.”
The state has already fined Enbridge for this first violation, but the DNR is still working on comprehensive penalties for all three violations. Meanwhile, Minnesota Attorney General Keith Ellison is reviewing the first incident for potential criminal charges.
White Earth tribal attorney Frank Bibeau said they would share the new flyover information with Ellison’s office. The footage is also being presented in tribal court as evidence in the group’s legal fight against the DNR.
Groundwater issues are exactly what opponents of Line 3 have warned could happen on such a large project traversing the northern Minnesota waterscape, Bibeau said.
“Now we have to live with them and they are being paid dearly for destroying our planet,” Bibeau said. “This stuff is irreparable for millennia. Those are hard words to think of.”
DNR Deputy Commissioner Barb Naramore said the agency was aware of the basic findings of the flyby but had not yet received copies of aerial imagery and technical information.
Juli Kellner, spokeswoman for Calgary-based Enbridge, said the company was unaware of the tribe’s new claims.
“We’ve flown and flown the route several times and worked with geologists, hydrologists and regulatory agencies,” Kellner said. “Regulators have carried out on-site visits and further investigation and we have found no further issues.”
Jeff Broberg, a geologist working with the White Earth Band, said he believed the group found the possible new crash sites because regulators were only reviewing problems reported by Enbridge.
Naramore disagreed. The DNR conducted its own aerial inspections “of relevant parts of the line extending beyond the areas around the three known breaches” and found no others, she said. She noted that groundwater on the surface does not always mean that an aquifer has been damaged.
“If White Earth or any other party provides us with specific, actionable information that warrants further investigation, we will follow up as appropriate,” Naramore said.
Images captured by the tribe’s contractor record the temperature difference between the warmer groundwater and the frozen ground. Broberg said they were looking at over a terabyte of data and planned to verify sites with on-foot inspections. A final report will be published this summer.
A site they suspect to be another breach is about a mile from where Line 3 crossed under the Otter River in St. Louis County: “It has a very high thermal footprint of hot water,” Broberg said.
The results of the band’s flyby were first disclosed in court documents filed March 25 in the White Earth Band Tribal Appeals Court and first reported on the Healing Minnesota Stories website. They are appealing the tribal court’s decision in March to dismiss the new “rights of nature” lawsuit in which the main plaintiff was wild rice, or manoomin, with its own rights to clean, undisturbed water.
The lawsuit is challenging the DNR’s permission for Enbridge to pump a maximum of 5 billion gallons of water from its construction sites. The group says pumping during last summer’s severe drought damaged the wild rice paddies.
The tribal court dismissed the case on March 10, saying it lacked jurisdiction because the alleged violations did not occur on the reservation. A parallel case is pending in federal court.
Line 3 breaches are unlikely to permanently damage aquifers, said Timothy Cowdery, a hydrogeologist with the US Geological Survey. Other scientists have expressed concerns about surface impacts and they go beyond wasting a public resource.
Some worry that groundwater discharge could lower water pressure in aquifers, potentially drying up wells or municipal water supplies. That’s a particular concern during a drought, said Joe Magner, a board-certified hydrologist in the University of Minnesota’s Department of Bioproducts and Biosystems Engineering. Flowing groundwater can also cause surface soil erosion and carry sediment to nearby wetlands, lakes and streams and damage those ecosystems, he said.
It is not clear if any wells were affected by the breaches. Clearbrook City Clerk Lucie Thompson said she doesn’t know if the city is tapping into the same aquifer that Enbridge crews burst near Clearbrook in January 2021, releasing at least 50 million gallons. But the city has two wells, she said, and the rupture “didn’t affect that.”
Breaches can have other effects, including contaminating aquifers and altering their chemistry in ways that harm plants and animals, said Kristen Blann, a freshwater ecologist at The Nature Conservancy.
The Clearbrook Breach threatens a nearby limestone marsh complex that MNR says is fed by groundwater from the same aquifer. Protected by state law, the limestone fens are rich in calcium and peat and so unique that the DNR considers them “one of the rarest natural communities in the United States.”
Enbridge hired a consultant to study the effects of the breach on the bog.
In the third confirmed aquifer rupture, just outside the Lake Superior Chippewa Fond du Lac Strip Reservation, groundwater flowing over reservation lands could damage stands of sacred wild rice in the band, a plant particularly sensitive to depth, temperature and water chemistry. The group said it will have a better understanding of any impacts over the next growing season.