As Line 3 construction rolls on, river crossings draw pipeline resisters

A woman stands next to a river.
Shanai Matteson, an artist and community organizer who grew up in Palisade, stands at the site where the Line 3 oil pipeline will cross underneath the Mississippi River. Matteson moved back to the area about a year ago and is staying at the welcome center. She recently rode her bike along the entire Line 3 pipeline route from Superior, Wis., to the North Dakota border, stopping at nearly all of the water crossing locations.
Kirsti Marohn | MPR News

Thick, leafy ferns skirt the edge of the Mississippi River in a rural area in Aitkin County. The river’s waters reflect the tree-lined banks as it winds through oxbow bends.

At a clearing, posted signs warn against trespassing, and the sound of heavy equipment drifts across the river. It’s at this site where the Enbridge Energy company plans to bore underneath the Mississippi to install its new Line 3 oil pipeline.

Shanai Matteson, an artist and community organizer, finds herself coming to this place, along a narrow path through a dense forest of maple and birch, often.

"The Mississippi River is a sacred place. It's a sacred being,” she said. “It has so much meaning for so many people, not to mention that it's the source of drinking water for both of the Twin Cities and so many other communities." 

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Family ties and the fight against this pipeline were what drew Matteson back home to this spot in northern Aitkin County, where she grew up.

She's now living in a house on about 80 acres, north of Palisade. The acreage is owned by Akiing, a Native American-led land company. Opponents of Line 3 established the Water Protectors Welcome Center on the site nearly a year ago. 

It's a hub where pipeline opponents, largely led by Native women, teach visitors about the surrounding land and water, and share their concerns about the destruction they worry this pipeline will cause.

Enbridge resumed its construction of the new Line 3 oil pipeline this week after a two-month hiatus tied to the spring thaw. 

The 340-mile replacement line will cross more than 200 water bodies in northern Minnesota, including some of the state's major rivers. 

Matteson said there are good reasons why this Mississippi River crossing site has become a spiritual magnet for those resisting Line 3.

"The point where the pipeline intersects with the river is a really symbolic, but also a really practical point of resistance,” she said. “Because the threat of oil spills is really compounded in that drilling process."

A large sign appears along a forest path.
A sign marks a path leading down to the Mississippi River, where people who oppose the Line 3 oil pipeline project have been gathering to camp and spend time by or on the river.
Kirsti Marohn | MPR News

After years of legal and regulatory back-and-forth, Enbridge began construction on the new pipeline last December. The project will replace the existing Line 3 pipeline with a larger one, along a new route that cuts across northern Minnesota.

Environmental groups and Ojibwe tribes in Minnesota are particularly concerned about the places where the pipeline will cross rivers, streams and wetlands. 

They worry that a spill or leak could contaminate valuable water resources, where tribes retain treaty rights to hunt, fish and gather wild rice.

Enbridge argues that it's safer to replace the old pipeline — which was built in the 1960s — with a new, more modern one, that's less likely to leak. And the company says it’s taking many precautions to protect water resources during construction.

Horizontal drilling

There are several ways to get a pipeline across a river or a stream. One option is to dam up the river and dig a trench across it to bury the pipe.

Another is to tunnel underneath the water, using a technique called horizontal directional drilling. That's how Line 3 will cross the Mississippi in two locations — here in Aitkin County, and not far from the river's headwaters.

In fact, directional drilling will be used for most of Line 3's major river crossings, because it's considered to be less disruptive to the water body.

Enbridge project director Barry Simonson explained how directional drilling works during a recent construction update. On one side of the river is a large piece of machinery called a horizontal drill rig. On the other side is a length of pipe, 70 to 80 feet long.

"It's strung out, it's welded, it's tested,” Simonson said. “And that pipe is just sitting there, waiting to get pulled into this area that's being drilled."

After a lot of detailed engineering analysis, crews use the rig to drill a pilot hole underneath the river, Simonson said. Then, with a larger tool called a ream, they widen the hole. Finally, they pull the pipe through from the other side.

Simonson said inspectors are constantly monitoring the process. And the drill rig itself monitors pressure, so crews can tell if there are any problems, he said.

Environmental groups generally agree that directional drilling has less impact on a river or stream than a trench crossing. 

A river surrounded by trees.
The Mississippi River north of Palisade in northern Aitkin County, near the location where the Line 3 oil pipeline is expected to cross underneath the river. Akiing, a Native-led land trust, owns about 80 acres here where water protectors who oppose the Line 3 project have established a welcome center.
Kirsti Marohn | MPR News

But they say it doesn’t come without risk:  With directional drilling, there's still the risk of a frac-out — an unintentional release of the clay-like substance called drilling mud that's used for lubrication, which contains bentonite and other additives that could contaminate the water.

"You can end up having the mud that is used to drill the tunnel blow back and seep out into the groundwater, and into the water table along where you're drilling your tunnel, in a way that causes tremendous amounts of damage,” said Moneen Nasmith, a staff attorney for Earthjustice, one of the groups opposing Line 3.

Enbridge is required to take steps to avoid any unintentional releases, and to respond quickly if one occurs. 

But even as the water crossings are set to begin, environmental groups continue to fight the Line 3 project in court. They're still challenging the state and federal water permits issued for the pipeline.

They're also appealing the state Public Utilities Commission's decision to approve the project in the first place, arguing that Enbridge hasn't proven that the pipeline is needed in Minnesota. A state appeals court decision in that case is expected by June 21.

And this weekend, hundreds of pipeline opponents are expected to congregate in northwestern Minnesota for a three-day event they’re calling the Treaty People Gathering 

It's expected to kick off a summer of ramped-up protests against Line 3, even as construction on the pipeline ramps back up to full speed.