Enbridge proposes another pipeline replacement across Fond du Lac reservation

Enbridge's Superior Terminal in February 2018 in Superior, Wisc.
Enbridge's Superior Terminal in February 2018 in Superior, Wisc.
Derek Montgomery for MPR News 2018

Enbridge Energy is proposing to replace a 10-mile section of an oil pipeline that crosses the reservation of the Fond du Lac Band of Lake Superior Chippewa in northeast Minnesota.

The Canadian company has filed an application with the Minnesota Public Utilities Commission to replace a section of its Line 4 pipeline — which was built above ground — with a new section of underground pipe.

Enbridge said the proposal comes at the request of the Fond du Lac Band. Enbridge and the band are also asking state regulators a streamlined permitting process for the project.

The $100 million proposal is "the result of the Band's requirement that Enbridge address the Band's concerns over the above-grade segment" of the pipeline that runs through the reservation, Fond du Lac Chairman Kevin Dupuis Sr. wrote in a letter of support to the utilities commission.

Dupuis explained in his note that the pipeline has disrupted natural water flow across the reservation, and "also functions as a physical barrier, affecting not just wildlife crossings but Band members' ability to access areas where they gather medicinal plants and other culturally important resources."

Enbridge asserts that Line 4, which was built in the 1970s, continues to operate safely. Some sections of pipe were intentionally built above ground in areas of heavily saturated soils and then covered with soil.

But over the years, some of that soil has eroded away, and some band members have expressed concerns about exposed sections of the aging pipeline on the reservation.

The commission voted to accept the application from Enbridge at a hearing Thursday. Commissioner John Tuma noted that he could actually see the exposed pipeline using the Google Earth mapping program.

After installing the new 36-inch pipe, Enbridge proposes to remove the old 48-inch pipe segment, a step the company said would make the area more accessible to tribal members and "help restore traditional land use" for the band.

Enbridge also argued Thursday that an underground pipe would better protect Line 4 from what it called third-party damage.

The band said it has provided "significant input to Enbridge" on the project, and has already completed work on a survey of cultural resources along the project route. The Fond du Lac Band told the Public Utilities Commission its preliminary conclusion is that no resources or historic sites will be disrupted by the pipeline replacement.

Line 4 is part of the Enbridge mainline, a network of six pipelines across northern Minnesota that together transport more than 2.5 million barrels of crude oil every day from Alberta, Canada.

The controversial Line 3 is also part of that system. Last summer, Minnesota regulators approved Enbridge's $2.6 billion plan to replace all of Line 3 through Minnesota with a new, larger pipe that follows a slightly different route across the state than the current Line 3.

The Public Utilities Commission determined that replacing Line 3, which is corroding and requires regular maintenance, is in the state's best interests, despite objections from several tribes and environmental groups that the project opens up new areas of the state to the risk of oil spills, crosses tribal treaty land and exacerbates climate change.

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The Fond du Lac Band opposed the new Line 3 project while it was being debated. But after the Minnesota Public Utilities Commission approved the contentious project, Enbridge reached a deal with the band to route the Line 3 replacement line through its reservation near Cloquet, Minn.

The band also agreed to provide Enbridge with easements through 2039 for the six oil pipelines that cross the reservation. Those easements had been scheduled to expire in 2029. Financial terms of the deal are confidential.

The new Line 3 will be built in an expanded right-of-way next to the existing pipeline corridor. Enbridge said it prefers to build the new 10-mile section of Line 4 along the Line 3 replacement pipeline route "for efficiency and convenience."

Enbridge is also applying for what's known as a "partial exemption" on the Line 4 replacement, arguing that the proposed project does not have significant impacts on people or the environment, and instead, would result in positive impacts. The Public Utilities Commission will hold public information meetings and accept comments on the proposal and then has 90 days to decide on the application.

Enbridge hopes to construct the Line 4 project in conjunction with the Line 3 replacement, beginning in the spring of 2020. The Fond du Lac Band also supports that timeline.

"Co-construction is the most efficient, least impactful method for this project," the band wrote to the commission.

Enbridge expects both projects to be in service by the end of next year.

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