Updated 9:40 p.m.
A summer of ramped-up opposition to the Line 3 oil pipeline in northern Minnesota kicked off Monday as hundreds of opponents began protesting and disrupting construction work, starting with a blockade at the entrance of an Enbridge Energy pump station south of Itasca State Park.
By late morning, around two dozen people had locked themselves to construction equipment at the Two Inlets station with two goals: to delay work on the pipeline and send a message to President Joe Biden to stop Line 3. Protesters were using a boat on a trailer to block the entrance to the site.
Hours later, law enforcement — primarily sheriffs’ deputies from counties across northern Minnesota — moved in to take protesters inside the pump station area into custody, while hundreds of other pipeline activists faced off against a wall of law enforcement outside the perimeter.
Earlier in the day, the law enforcement presence was minimal, with some Hubbard County sheriff’s deputies nearby along with some Minnesota State Patrol troopers and Department of Natural Resources officers, whose work was coordinated by the Northern Lights Task Force, a law enforcement collaborative overseeing the police response to Enbridge protests.
Around noontime, a United States Customs and Border Protection helicopter flew in very low to try to flush out demonstrators from the site.
It hovered about 20 to 25 feet off the ground, making multiple passes over the site, blowing up clouds of dirt. A loudspeaker broadcast warned people they would be arrested if they didn’t leave the area.
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The task force said later on Facebook that the helicopter was brought in to provide a dispersal order “that everyone would be able to hear” and that the dirt-filled clouds from the rotor were an unintended consequence of dry weather conditions and “not an intentional act to cause discomfort or intended as a dispersal mechanism.”
A spokesperson for Customs and Border Protection said the agency’s Grand Forks office sent the helicopter in response to a request for assistance from local law enforcement. The spokesperson said CBP is investigating the incident and that “all appropriate actions will be taken based on the facts that are learned.”
Protesters said there were about a dozen workers at the site in the morning who left once they saw the mass of people coming.
Enbridge said 44 workers work at the Two Inlets pump station site, including about 10 employees of Gordon Construction, a Native American-owned business based on the White Earth reservation.
"Our workforce stood down, had to be evacuated, left the site. That’s in our effort to de-escalate. But since then people have locked on to equipment. Damage has been done. It’s hurtful," said Paul Eberth, director of tribal engagement for Enbridge.
About 500 Native Americans have worked on the project to date, he noted.
Protests this week began over the weekend as part of the Treaty People Gathering, an Indigenous-led effort based on the White Earth Reservation, which has featured speeches, rallies and coordinated acts of civil disobedience.
Besides the pump site, organizers say an estimated 700 people have gathered to pray and protest near the headwaters of the Mississippi, at one of the points where Line 3 crosses the water, close to the DNR’s La Salle Lake Scientific and Natural Area.
The new Line 3 is a 340-mile pipeline replacement project that Enbridge Energy is building along a new route across northern Minnesota. Enbridge argues that replacing the existing Line 3 with new, more modern technology is safer and will reduce the likelihood of spills.
Work on the project is more than half complete. Construction resumed on June 1 after a two-month pause during the spring thaw. The company expects 4,000 workers to be on the ground by mid-June, with the pipeline completed and in service by the end of the year.
Pipeline opponents argue the project will exacerbate climate change, and will increase the risk of oil spills or leaks that could threaten water resources, where several Ojibwe tribes retain treaty rights to hunt, fish and gather wild rice.
It’s a key moment for the groups fighting the project. Since Minnesota utility regulators first approved Line 3 in 2018, opponents have pledged stiff resistance. The new pipeline would transport nearly 800,000 barrels of Canadian oil across northern Minnesota every day.