Updated: 8:23 p.m.
Twelve out of 17 members of a group that advises the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency on environmental justice issues have resigned in protest of the agency’s approval late last week of a key water quality permit for the contentious Line 3 oil pipeline replacement project.
In a letter delivered yesterday to MPCA Commissioner Laura Bishop, the members of the Environmental Justice Advisory Group wrote that they are submitting their “collective and public resignation” because they “cannot continue to legitimize and provide cover for the MPCA’s war on Black and brown people.”
The MPCA on Thursday granted a key water quality permit known as a 401 certification to Enbridge Energy, the company vying to build a 340-mile oil pipeline across northern Minnesota. The new line would replace an existing, deteriorating pipeline that was built in the 1960s and is still in use.
Enbridge now only needs a federal permit from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, along with a construction permit from the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, before it can begin construction, possibly as soon as next month.
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Five years ago, under former MPCA Commissioner John Linc Stine, the MPCA adopted an environmental justice framework, meant to ensure that “everyone benefits from the same degree of environmental protection and has equal access to the decision-making processes that contribute to a healthy environment,” regardless of race, color, national origin or income.
In 2016 the MPCA established the environmental justice advisory group--made up of environmental advocates, college professors, business leaders and other community members — to provide feedback on how well the agency is implementing that framework, and to provide recommendations to help the agency incorporate environmental justice principles into its work.
But despite years of collaboration with MPCA staff, the group said that their voices “have had little substantive impact on the outcomes of the MPCA decisions. The Line 3 permit is the last straw of many disappointments as the agency continues to enable harm to frontline Bblack, Indigenous and communities of color.”
“I think it's a con job. It's a public relations trick,” said Lea Foushee, who was in her second two-year term on the advisory group before she resigned this week. Foushee said the group seemed to be a way for the agency to say it was taking into account what she called the buzzwords of “diversity, equity and inclusion,” but that the group’s recommendations were ignored when it came to decisions on big, controversial projects like Line 3.
Others who resigned from the advisory group include Winona LaDuke, founder of Honor the Earth and a longtime opponent of the Line 3 project; Zeke McKinney, a physician and public health professor at the University of Minnesota; and members who work for environmental advocacy groups like the Sierra Club and Climate Generation and state and county government.
Commissioner Bishop thanked the group “for their steadfast commitment to ensuring that every voice and community is heard and engaged” in a statement Tuesday.
“I recognize the disappointment of some advisory group members regarding the Line 3 decision,” she continued. “The MPCA EJAG has made a significant difference in the way that the agency approaches its work, including integrating equity into agency grantmaking decisions, strengthening community engagement during enforcement and permitting processes, and prioritizing permits and safeguards in environmental justice communities.”
One of the group’s key concerns about Line 3 is the potential harm the pipeline could cause to wild rice, a food sacred to Ojibwe people. The proposed route crosses more than 40 watersheds where wild rice grows. An oil spill, the group argues, could have devastating consequences.
“This project is a clear violation of environmental justice, causing significant trauma to the Anishinaabe people, the wild rice and world within which they live,” the group wrote in an Oct. 27 letter to MPCA Commissioner Bishop, urging her to reject the permit.
When it announced the permit approval last week, the MPCA imposed a number of conditions that Enbridge Energy, the company building the new line, will need to meet during the construction phase. Those conditions were imposed as a way to try to protect more than 200 streams and more than 700 acres of wetlands the new line would cross.
For example: Between April 1 and July 15, Enbridge will be prohibited from conducting construction in wild rice waters or areas up to 25 miles upstream of wild rice waters. That’s the time time of year the plants are most susceptible to damage. Enbridge is also prohibited from using any salt to remove ice during winter construction activities. And construction in sensitive wetlands is prohibited for two and a half months in the spring.
While many tribal groups and tribal governments have opposed Line 3, some have taken more nuanced approaches. The Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe supported the replacement project, which routes the new pipeline along a path that skirts around the tribe’s north-central Minnesota reservation, because it wanted the existing pipeline — which cuts through the middle of the reservation — to be decommissioned and removed from their land.
Meanwhile the Fond du Lac Band of Lake Superior Chippewa, which initially opposed Line 3, eventually consented to routing the new line through its reservation after the project was approved by Minnesota utility regulators. The band determined that option was preferable to having the new line travel along a new corridor in territory ceded in 1854, where band members retain treaty rights to hunt, fish and gather.
"As a sovereign nation, we are confounded that we are being forced to choose between two evils as both routes pass through our lands," tribal council chairman Kevin Dupuis Sr. said at the time.
The White Earth and Red Lake Nations continue to fight Line 3, and have joined several environmental groups — and the Minnesota Department of Commerce — in challenging state utility regulators’ approval of the project.
Opponents of Line 3 — including the advisory group — have also argued that the pipeline would have enormous and long-lasting impacts on climate change. The pipeline, they say, would pump heavy Canadian oil for decades, oil that would eventually be burned and emit greenhouse gases.
Bishop acknowledged those concerns when announcing her agency’s most recent Line 3 permit. “I have heard from countless Minnesotans that the MPCA should deny this certification because of climate change,” she said.
Minnesota Gov. Tim Walz’s administration shared those concerns, she said. That’s why she said her agency has spearheaded an effort to make more electric vehicles available in the state -- the so-called “clean car initiative.”
But Bishop argued that when it comes to climate change, her agency’s hands are tied. She said in deciding whether to grant the water permit, federal law permits the MPCA only to consider the impacts of pipeline construction on water quality; not the impacts on climate change caused by operation of the pipeline itself.
“While everyone can agree that the increased use of fossil fuels, including oil, will adversely impact our climate,” Bishop said, “the MPCA can only use its...authority to regulate water quality per federal regulations.”
Environmental groups disagree with that conclusion, and will likely challenge the MPCA’s decision in state court.
Meanwhile the dozen people who have resigned from the environmental justice advisory group say they hope their action inspires the MPCA “to reflect on the choice they made,” and “do everything in their power to repair the damage they have done and seek a healing justice path with communities they have harmed.”
The agency said it “remains committed to ensuring that every Minnesotan has healthy air, sustainable lands, clean water and a better climate.”
Correction (Nov. 17, 2020): A previous version of this story misidentified the Red Lake Nation.