Oil and water: The Line 3 debate

Line 3 opponents challenge pipeline's state water permit in court

Police are seen between locked arms.
Activists lock arms as State Troopers direct traffic on Highway 71 as activists occupy an Enbridge Line 3 pump station near Park Rapids, Minn., on Monday.
Evan Frost | MPR News

The Minnesota Court of Appeals heard arguments Thursday over a challenge to a key water quality permit that it granted to the Line 3 oil pipeline project. The case is one in a series of legal appeals brought by opponents of the controversial project.

Enbridge Energy needed several environmental permits from state and federal agencies in order to build its new, 340-mile replacement oil pipeline along a new route across water-rich northern Minnesota.

Among them is a permit from the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency (MPCA) certifying that the project wouldn't violate state water quality standards. That certification is now at the center of a case at the state appeals court.

Before a three-judge panel, an attorney for the environmental groups and several Ojibwe tribes argued that the MPCA didn't consider alternative routes for the pipeline with less impact to water quality and didn't adequately consider its impacts on aquatic life or wetlands.

Under state regulations, “if there are alternatives available that are less environmentally damaging, permits can't be granted,” said Scott Strand, an attorney representing the groups appealing the certification, including the nonprofit Friends of the Headwaters.

Lawyers from the state and Enbridge argued that the company and the MPCA completed a thorough analysis of Line 3's effect on water quality and considered ways to avoid or reduce harm to wetlands.

“The agency took a hard look at the aquatic life effects that are central to this appeal,” said Peter Farrell, Minnesota assistant attorney general.

They also argued that the opponents’ case is moot because it wouldn’t affect a federal permit that the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers had already issued the Line 3 project under the federal Clean Water Act. The state water quality certification is a required first step to receive the federal permit.

The $4 billion project has been the target of ongoing protests from opponents who view it as likely to exacerbate climate change and put water resources at risk.

Since Minnesota utility regulators first approved Line 3 in 2018, opponents have pledged stiff resistance. The new pipeline, which replaces the current, aging Line 3, would transport nearly 800,000 barrels of Canadian oil across northern Minnesota every day.

More than 200 people were arrested last weekend and into the week during a four-day gathering marked by prayers, marches and nonviolent acts of disobedience.

Many of the protests have been led by Native American tribal members, who view the project as a violation of their rights to hunt, fish and gather wild rice on treaty lands in northern Minnesota.

Enbridge argues that replacing the existing Line 3 pipeline, which was built in the 1960s and is corroding, will reduce the threat of oil spills or leaks.

Pipeline opponents are also challenging state utility regulators’ decision to approve Line 3. An opinion is expected in that case early next week.

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