Critics object to pumping oil through MN lakes country


A series of hearings in early January

will gather public opinions on a proposed pipeline that would

increase the amount of oil flowing across Minnesota by 225,000

barrels a day.

The line is called Sandpiper, and the

crude it would carry from North Dakota’s Bakken oil fields would be a

significant addition to the more than 2 million barrels of oil that

daily travel through underground pipelines bound for refineries in

the Twin Cities and beyond. Trains carry an additional half-million


But the plan has raised concerns among

environmentalists and state agencies about potential risks to lakes

and rivers.

A project manager for Enbridge, the

Canadian company that wants to build the line, said the project is

necessary "because there’s a growing supply of crude oil in

western North Dakota, and it needs efficient, cost-effective and safe

transportation to get to the markets in the Midwest and the East in

the U.S. where it’s needed."

Bill Blazar, interim president of the

Minnesota Chamber of Commerce, voiced strong support, saying calling

the project "key to the development and growth of our state’s


"We’d be nuts not to support this

kind of infrastructure development," Blazar said.

Sandpiper would zigzag about 300 miles

across the state. Roughly three-quarters of the path would follow

existing utility corridors – to Enbridge’s terminal in Clearbrook,

in northwest Minnesota, and then south to Park Rapids before turning

east to the company’s hub in Superior, Wis.

Opponents say that route runs too close

to sensitive lakes and rivers, wetlands and wild rice habitat.

Richard Smith heads up the group

Friends of the Headwaters, which wants to keep Sandpiper away from

the headwaters of the Mississippi River.

"We’re not against the company

building the pipeline," Smith said. "We just think the

company should consider a different place for this pipeline so that

Minnesota’s water resources aren’t at risk."

That view is shared by the Minnesota

Pollution Control Agency and Department of Natural Resources. Both

agencies asked the Public Utilities Commission to consider alternate

routes that would skirt northern Minnesota’s lakes region.

In a letter to the utilities

commission, the MPCA wrote that the proposed route for Sandpiper

would cross 28 water bodies where there is no nearby access in case

of a possible spill.

The DNR wrote that the proposed route

crosses "a region of the state that contains a concentration of

important lakes for fisheries, trout streams, sensitive aquifers,

public conservation lands, and mineral and forestry resources."

Last September, in a step unprecedented

in the state, the utilities commission ordered a closer look at six

different route options. It was the first time the commission had

asked a pipeline company to consider a route completely different

from what it had proposed.

The Commerce Department then took a

broad look at the environmental impacts of those options. The

department’s analysis determined that Enbridge’s preferred route

crossed more wetlands and forested areas. But it also crossed the

fewest number of streams and avoided more cities and towns.

Friends of the Headwaters welcomed the

decision to analyze alternate routes, but filed suit asking for a

full-blown environmental impact study of the pipeline plan. The group

contended that the Commerce Department’s environmental analysis of

the alternate routes was inadequate and rushed. Smith said he thinks

"Minnesotans deserve the right to take enough time to do a full

analysis for where they want to put this pipeline."

Smith and others say the decision is

especially critical because there will likely be more than just one

pipeline. Enbridge has already announced plans to replace a different

line with a new pipe in the Sandpiper corridor. Craig Sterle, a

retired DNR forester and member of the group Carlton County Land

Stewards, says he expects it won’t end there.

"We believe that eventually, with

all the exploration and pumping that’s being done in the Bakken, and

up in Canada in the tar sands, there will be pressure for additional

lines," he said. "So there will be a large new corridor

cutting across Minnesota, and so we want to make sure it’s done in

the right place, and done the right way."

Enbridge officials believe their

preferred route is the right way.

The company worked hard to avoid lakes

in designing the pipeline route, said Project Director Paul Eberth.

According to an analysis conducted for the company by Barr

Engineering, "only about 3 percent of the lakes in the

watersheds that we cross have a hydrological connection to the

pipeline," he said.

Enbridge has negotiated easements with

92 percent of landowners along the route.

Eberth said many of the alternate

routes that veer west and south of the state’s northern lakes country

would cost more, and would potentially affect more cities and


"There’s more people that live

along that route," he said. "There’s also water features

that would be crossed — streams, creeks, waterways. Generally, a

lot of similar features that you see in northern Minnesota. The

density is less, but the length is longer, which still provides for a

potential to impact people."

Eberth said the state’s decision to

analyze alternate routes has set back the pipeline’s likely start of

service to 2017.

Dan Olson, with the International

Laborers Union in Superior, said his members are eager to get to work

on the project, which is expected to create 1,500 construction jobs.

"I’ve got a good workforce that has worked on the pipelines,"

he said. "They’re anxious to get going — but hopeful that it

will go through the right process so it’s done right."

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