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Line 3 Pipeline Construction Damaged a Sensitive Wetland, State Says

The Minnesota Department of Natural Resources has ordered Enbridge Energy to pay more than $3 million and is recommending prosecution.

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Climate activists and Indigenous community members gather on the river for a traditional water ceremony during a rally and march to protest the construction of Enbridge Line 3 pipeline.
Climate activists and Indigenous community members gather on the river for a traditional water ceremony during a rally and march to protest the construction of Enbridge Line 3 pipeline.
Photo: Kerem Yucel/AFP (Getty Images)

The Minnesota Department of Natural Resources said Thursday that it was ordering Enbridge Energy to pay $3.3 million for damaging a sensitive aquifer during the construction of the controversial Line 3 pipeline. It turns out the water protectors’ opposing the pipeline may have been onto something.

In a release, the DNR said it is Enbridge had to pay up for “failure to follow environmental laws” at a site near its Clearbrook Terminal in Clearwater County, Minnesota. The DNR said it also determined that Enbridge violated a statute that makes it a crime to alter or appropriate state waters without a proper permit and has referred the case to the Clearwater County Attorney for possible prosecution.


“DNR is committed to its role as a regulator on this project and is taking seriously our responsibility to protect and manage natural resources within existing state law,” DNR Commissioner Sarah Strommen said in a statement. “Enbridge’s actions are clear violations of state law and also of public trust. This never should have happened, and we are holding the company fully accountable.”

According to the DNR, Enbridge violated its official construction plans and dug a trench some 8 feet (2.4 meters) deeper than what it had told the state it would do. This, in turn, caused an aquifer to breach and groundwater to flow into the trench. The area in which Enbridge was working is a particularly sensitive wetland region known as calcareous fens, which a DNR factsheet describes as “rare and distinctive” area that’s reliant on “a constant supply of upwelling groundwater.” The breach, the DNR reported, has resulted in 24.2 million gallons of groundwater flowing out of the aquifer.


The groundwater leak happened back in January. Enbridge didn’t notify DNR of the leak, though, but independent monitors hired by the state noticed “unusual amounts of water in the trench” at the Clearwater site. Because those monitors didn’t have access to Enbridge’s construction plans, however, they were not aware that this water was the result of the alleged violation. It was only in June, during discussions with the monitors, that DNR identified the problem and launched an investigation.

The Line 3 project is actually a replacement for an aging pipeline, but takes a new route through Minnesota, cutting through the Fond du Lac Reservation and several treaty lands of Ojibwe bands. This portion of the pipeline has been hotly contested as Indigenous groups claim that their rights are being violated and that the pipeline threatens their land and water. Indigenous protesters have organized under the rallying cry of “water is life,” and one of the main sites where organizers have laid out their opposition note that they’re working to “protect the water and our future generations.” 

While resistance to the pipeline has been brewing for years, it really picked up this year as Enbridge nears completion on the project. Hundreds of people have been arrested during demonstrations against Line 3 since the start of the summer alone, while local authorities have at times worked hand-in-hand with Enbridge to suppress opposition. Earlier this month, Minnesota state troopers arrested 70 protesters at a demonstration outside the governor’s mansion, as the state is considering criminalizing pipeline protests.

Environmental advocates have also questioned whether or not the state and federal governments have done due diligence in approving the project, which, when completed, would carry 760,000 barrels of heavy crude oil per day from tar sands fields in Canada into the U.S., and lock in fossil fuel use for decades to come.


When Joe Biden took office, advocates saw a chance for him to stop the project or at least mandate further environmental assessment. But in June, the Biden administration made the surprising move of asking a court to throw out Indigenous complaints against Line 3 and allowing the project to proceed, effectively putting the weight of the federal government behind the pipeline. The type of accident that happened in January, advocates say, is precisely why the Biden administration needs to intervene.

“Enbridge is a rogue corporation that caused the largest inland oil spill in U.S. history and has now damaged Minnesota’s most precious waters during construction of the Line 3 tar sands pipeline,” Winona LaDuke, Executive Director of Honor the Earth and one of the most visible figures in the Line 3 resistance movement, said in a statement. “The Biden Administration would only be doing its basic due diligence by finally requiring a full Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) before any oil goes in this hurriedly-constructed new pipeline. Minnesota’s statewide leaders like Governor Walz and Senators Smith and Klobuchar should mitigate the damage already done to our water—and protect our shared climate—by asking the U.S. Army Corps for a full EIS before more tar sands crude oil flows.”