‘They screwed up our lake’: tar sands pipeline is sucking water from Minnesota watersheds

Photograph by Kerem Yucel/AFP/Getty Images
Jim Libby and Jerry, Indigenous Anishinaabe wild-rice harvesters from north-western Minnesota, set down a row in the mud near the dock at Upper Wild Rice Lake. The sky was clear and there were clumps full of green rice heads visible on the horizon.

The entrance to this long, rocky necklace of wild rice lakes in northern Minnesota that the Indigenous people of the region flock to every year in late summer would normally be at least 2 feet deep in a typical year. It is now made of suspended sediment that is as hard as chocolate pudding. The Libbys have to make a ramp to transport their canoe to the waterline.

Minnesota is experiencing a drought that is unprecedented, but Enbridges Line 3 Tar Sands Pipeline has caused significant damage to watersheds throughout the region. This includes a permit to pump five million gallons of water to construct the pipeline. Upper Wild Rice Lake was the subject of a Knife River Construction road contractor. He placed a pump in the lake last June and it sucked out an unknown amount of water. Locals believe this is due to heavy trucks being used for the pipeline.

Jerry Libby states that Enbridge has ruined our lake and taken money from our families. This is why we feel so angst.

Line 3, which aims to transport 930,000 barrels per day of tar sands bitsumen from Alberta to Superior, Wisconsin via a shipping and refinery hub, is being led by Indigenous peoples, has been the most significant environmental and Indigenous land protection campaign in the US. Nearly 900 people were arrested in opposition to the pipeline, including 70 who were arrested in protests at the residence of Minnesota Governor Tim Walz in Minneapolis in August.

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The new pipeline is being marketed as a replacement project. It will double the capacity of Line 3 to transport tar sands bitsumen. Enbridge, a Canadian energy company, announced that it will start sending oil through the pipeline in the next month.

According to an analysis by Oil Change International, the processing and combustion bitumen for the pipeline will release greenhouse gases equal to 50 coal plants. This would significantly contribute to the global climate crisis. The pipeline's immediate impact is felt by wild rice harvesters like the Libbys. Their annual harvesting season begins in August and continues through September.

Many Anishinaabes refer to wild rice as manoomin. This is the term for the food that grows on water. It is a nutritious, dense grain that grows naturally in many lakes and rivers throughout Minnesota, Wisconsin, and other parts of Canada. It is still harvested by thousands of Anishinaabes using the same traditional techniques used for generations. They use a long pole to propel a canoe, small boat or small boat through rice beds.

Bob Shimek, long-time Anishinaabe rice farmer, says that the indigenous people in the region believe that they have a sacred agreement to protect manoomin, and other non-human beings. Without this covenant, they would cease to be distinct peoples. Shimek said wild rice is used in any ceremony that we hold here. It's almost like Anishinaabe soulfood.

Line 3 crosses more than 200 water bodies, including the Mississippi River headwaters and the important wild rice waters, streams and rivers of the region. Enbridge was allowed to draw almost five billion gallons of water from these bodies without consulting the White Earth Indian Reservation or public notice.

Christy Dolph is a University of Minnesota researcher who studies the state's water resources. She notes that the impacts of pipelines on water and the species that rely on it are many. Enbridge pumps any groundwater into trenches in order to lay pipe. This causes water to evaporate.

She says that these activities have a significant impact on the wetlands, particularly since they are already suffering from severe drought stress.

Opponents fear that the pipeline will leak or spill tar sands oil, especially since it is almost impossible to clean up the thick substance.

Wild rice, like other species of wetland plants, is sensitive to changes in water levels. This can affect its ability to grow and reseed. Low water levels can cause rice harvesters to lose their ability to paddle their canoes to their rice fields, a significant loss in their income and a major source for spiritual and physical sustenance.

The Libby brothers estimate that they can make $9,000 a year from rice harvesting. This money is used for basic necessities such as home repairs, school supplies, and vehicle maintenance. Many harvesters had to resort to unconventional methods, such as walking through the muddy, dry-out lakes in snow shoes and carrying burlap bags around their shoulders. This yields only one-third to one fourth of what they could harvest using canoes.

Enbridge denies that they are responsible for the conditions found in rice beds close to the pipeline route, or that the pipeline causes damage to watersheds. Juli Kelner, Enbridge spokesperson, wrote via email that Line 3s permit conditions protect wild rice and the environment during construction. For seven decades, Enbridge pipelines have been coexisting with Minnesota's most sacred and productive wild Rice stands.

A spokesperson for the Department of Natural Resources stated that Minnesota DNR has consistently worked to minimize the impact of the Line 3 replacement project's impacts on wild rice and other Minnesota resources. These efforts go back to our initial comments to the Minnesota Public Utilities Commission, (PUC), regarding project routing. We strongly advocated for alternative routes that minimize crossings in wild rice waters.

The White Earth Band of Ojibwe has brought a lawsuit to the forefront regarding the effects of Line 3 on wild rice. This is the first of its kind. According to a series of treaties the Chippewa Anishinaabe people have signed with the US government in the middle of the 19th century, the suit asserts that wild rice has inherent rights to survive, thrive, regenerate and evolve. However, the case could not be decided until construction is complete.

Wild rice is not only at risk from the Line 3 pipeline's direct effects, but also from climate change. A 2018 report from the Great Lakes Indian Fish and Wildlife Commission, an intertribal agency that protects Anishinaabe treaty right, states that climate change will cause widespread destruction to virtually all plant and animal species. The report states that wild rice is the most threatened species due to its vulnerability to flooding, drought and disease.

Opponents argue that stopping Line 3 is essential to combating the climate crisis. This is because tar sands, one of the most intense fossil fuels, emits the most carbon dioxide and the construction of new infrastructure for fossil fuels locks in the emissions for many decades. Over the past few months activists have called for the Biden administration's immediate halt to the pipeline, directing the Army Corps of Engineers not to grant the permit.

Angel Stevens, Anishinaabe wild Rice Harvester, is a member the Anti-pipeline Manoomin camp. She says that the fight against Line 3 continues despite the project's imminent completion. She says that we are continuing to fight against this pipeline.


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