A version of this story aired in MPR News radio newscasts on June 28-29, and on the Minnesota Today morning podcast on June 29.
Local and state officials arrested six men last week during a sting operation to combat human trafficking in northern Minnesota's Beltrami County.
Two of the men who were arrested were working on the Line 3 oil pipeline project.
The Minnesota Bureau of Criminal Apprehension said the six suspects responded to an ad that human trafficking investigators posted on a sex advertisement website. They were arrested when they arrived at an arranged meeting place. Three of the men are from Minnesota, and three are from out of state.
“This operation was part of our ongoing, collective commitment to rid our communities of sexual exploitation,” BCA Superintendent Drew Evans said in a news release. “It is never OK to purchase another person for sex.”
Enbridge said two of the people arrested in the June 25-26 sting in Bemidji were working for a subcontractor on its Line 3 replacement project. The company said they were both immediately fired, and said all workers on the project are required to complete human trafficking awareness training.
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Line 3 opponents had raised concerns about a potential rise in sex trafficking in the region when the state debated whether to approve the pipeline project.
Two pipeline workers were charged in a different sex trafficking sting in Itasca County earlier this year.
“As experts and Indigenous women predicted, this pipeline project has brought men into our communities who have chosen to prey on our women," Honor the Earth's Winona LaDuke said in a statement issued after the arrests. "It is truly horrifying to imagine that, if four men have been arrested, just how many more are out there seeking to bring harm to Indigenous women — a group that is already more at risk of becoming victims of sexual violence than any other demographic in our country."
The BCA-led Human Trafficking Investigators Task Force that conducted the sting operation also included the Tribes United Against Sex Trafficking (TRUST) Task Force, the Beltrami County Sheriff’s Office and the Bemidji Police Department. More than a dozen other law enforcement agencies and other organizations also assisted in the effort.
The 1,097-mile line is part of an Enbridge network that moves oil from fields in Canada's Alberta province to refineries in southern Ontario and the U.S. Midwest. It crosses the far northeastern tip of North Dakota, then cuts through northern Minnesota to a terminal at Superior, Wis.
The line carries nearly 16.4 million gallons of oil used in fuels and other products.
Enbridge says the original 1960s pipe is deteriorating and carrying about half its capacity. The company is replacing it with pipe made of stronger steel that it says would enable resumption of a normal flow — about 32 million gallons daily.
Work is finished in Canada, North Dakota and Wisconsin and 60 percent complete in Minnesota, where 337 miles of new pipe is being laid.
Opponents contend the project endangers waterways, violates Indigenous treaty rights and abets dependence on fossil fuels that will further overheat the planet.