Minnesota tribes press concerns over pipeline plan, wild rice

Piles of pipes along Hwy. 200
Fifty miles of Enbridge pipe stacked in a hay field on Highway 200 east of Lake George, Minn., in November 2014.
John Enger | MPR News

Several Minnesota Indian bands are upset about what they say is a lack of consultation over a proposed controversial oil pipeline across northern Minnesota.

This week, the Mille Lacs and White Earth Ojibwe bands are holding their own public hearings on plans for the Sandpiper line, a $2.6 billion pipeline that would pump North Dakota crude 300 miles across Minnesota to its terminal in Superior, Wis., and eventually to refineries around the Great Lakes.

The tribal hearings are happening as the Minnesota Public Utilities Commission readies a major ruling on the project's need.

While the route preferred by Canadian pipeline company Enbridge Energy does not cross any Indian reservations, it does cross a large area of lakes and forests in northern Minnesota where treaties give tribes the right to hunt, fish and gather.

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Tribal members say they are especially concerned about potential impacts on their right to gather wild rice. A three-hour meeting Enbridge hosted last week on the Fond du Lac Reservation was sometimes tense and emotional.

Sandpiper pipeline
A map of the proposed Sandpiper pipeline.
Courtesy of Enbridge

"If the wild rice dies, we die," said Michael Dahl, who drove four hours from the White Earth reservation to attend the meeting. "Shame on you," he shouted to Enbridge representatives.

Tanya Aubid, a Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe member who lives near the Rice Lake National Wildlife Refuge near McGregor, Minn., broke down in tears as she talked about how a pipeline spill near Rice Lake would be devastating.

Ojibwe migration stories tell of how the people were told to keep moving until they came to a place where food grew on the water.

"Wild Rice is very much an integral part of our lives," she said. "It's there for us for our ceremonies, for basic daily living, and something we've had here for thousands and thousands of years."

Linda Coady, Enbridge's director of sustainability, told tribal members she'd relay their concerns to the company's senior leadership. While she didn't make any promises, Coady said she hopes Enbridge and tribes can forge a less adversarial relationship.

"There are very strong feelings; there are obviously a lot of concerns about the potential impact of a spill in relation to wild rice," she said.

"On some of the issues, we have shared values, common goals," she added. "No one wants to threaten the wild rice in Minnesota."

Enbridge has hired a tribal relations consultant. But several bands say neither Enbridge nor the state have done enough to consult with tribes.

Public hearings on the need for Sandpiper were held in Duluth, Bemidji and other cities, but not on any reservations. The White Earth Band asked the Public Utilities Commission for one. The agency declined.

This week, both the White Earth and Mille Lacs Bands will hold their own hearings on the pipeline proposal.

"We want to get our voice heard on this particular issue," said Susan Klapel, natural resources commissioner for the Mille Lacs Band.

The PUC's Dan Wolf says tribal voices have had a chance to be heard.

While he declined a recorded interview, he said in a statement that tribal members have "submitted numerous comments," adding there's been "considerable opportunity" to provide written comments.

The White Earth Band and a Native American group called Honor the Earth are formal parties to the Sandpiper proceedings before the PUC and have testified in several hearings.

But that's not enough, said Winona LaDuke, founder of Honor the Earth. The state should consult directly with tribal governments.

"Nation to nation, we should act as governing bodies between the Mille Lacs band and the White Earth band that are both holding hearings this week," she said. "But instead the PUC is just going ahead."

The utilities commission is scheduled to decide on Sandpiper's "certificate of need" on Friday. That's the same day as the Mille Lacs Band's public hearing, and just a day after White Earth's. Mille Lacs and White Earth leaders have asked the commission to delay its decision until they submit reports from their hearings.

But even if the commission rules the pipeline is needed, that's not the final say on the project. The PUC would still have to approve a final route for the pipeline, a process that will require more public hearings, and the PUC says, more chances for tribal input.