Enbridge Energy wants to leave its aging Line 3 oil pipeline in the ground if it gets Minnesota regulators' approval to build a replacement across northern Minnesota.
But with a decision on whether to approve the contentious project a few months away, a growing chorus of landowners and tribal groups is calling for Enbridge to remove the old pipeline if the new one gets the OK. They're concerned about potential pollution from the old pipe, that it could become buoyant and pop out of the ground or that it could potentially act as a water conduit underground.
"When you're done with something, clean it up. It's that simple," said Richard Shustarich, 77, who lives along the current Line 3 route just outside Grand Rapids, Minn.
He has no problem with pipelines. When he bought his small house on 20 acres a little over a decade ago, five oil pipelines already crossed the property. And he had no problem signing an easement to give Enbridge permission to add another line in 2010. He said they're a safer way to transport oil than trains.
"I figured that was a smart way to do it," he said. "But I hadn't thought that Enbridge would disrespect the people who allowed them to go on their property, you know, for a few thousand bucks."
Enbridge's preferred route for the new Line 3 would travel well south of Shustarich's property, through southern Cass and Aitkin counties.
Enbridge has agreed to remove the old Line 3 in areas where it's exposed. But because Line 3 is in the middle of a corridor with several operating lines 15 to 20 feet away, Enbridge contends it would be difficult to safely remove it.
"If there was a compromising of those existing pipelines for a potential release, there could be an effect on the land use, the environment, and the general public and the landowners themselves," said project director Barry Simonson.
Removal would also be expensive. Enbridge estimates it would cost over $1.2 billion, although Simonson stresses that safety is the most important factor in its decision.
Enbridge will continue to inspect the line after its decommissioned, and clean the inside of it, even though regulations don't require it.
"We feel that it is important that we not just purge the line of crude oil, but we'll also be doing a systematic cleaning program, that will ensure no more oil will be present in the pipeline," he said.
Then Enbridge plans to cut the line up into different segments, and cap each end.
The company is also negotiating with Grand Rapids on how to best deactivate the line near where the city draws its groundwater. Simonson said the company is "more than willing to meet with any landowner who has concerns."
David Anderson, a pastor at Saint Andrews Lutheran Church in Grand Rapids, said his congregation is also asking to have the pipeline removed. The pipeline corridor runs right in front of the church.
"It's our ongoing concern, how can we care for this place that god has charged us to take care of?"
Two bills have been introduced in the Minnesota Legislature that would require companies to remove pipelines that are decommissioned. But neither has been scheduled for a hearing.
The Minnesota Department of Natural Resources has recommended that if the state approves the new pipeline project, it requires Enbridge "to work with landowners to identify areas where the pipe needs to be removed or where special abandonment measures are needed."
Minnesota regulators are expected to decide Line 3's fate in June.
Anderson wonders about the future beyond Line 3, when Enbridge eventually decommissions other pipelines.
"What happens then? Are we going to be liable for the cleanup?"