Enbridge ordered to pay $3.3 million for an aquifer breach

An orange sign on the side of a snowy road.
A road sign warns drivers of upcoming construction of the Line 3 oil pipeline near Palisade, Minn., on Dec. 9, 2020.
Evan Frost | MPR News 2020

Minnesota regulators have ordered Enbridge to pay up to $3.32 million for allegedly violating state environmental law by piercing a groundwater aquifer during construction of the Line 3 oil pipeline.

On Thursday, the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources issued a restoration order and administrative penalty order against the Canadian-based company over the breach, which the agency says occurred in late January near the Clearbrook Terminal in Clearwater County.

The breach resulted in millions of gallons of groundwater flowing out of the aquifer, posing a risk to rare wetlands nearby, the DNR says. The agency also referred the matter to the Clearwater County attorney for possible misdemeanor criminal charges.

“Enbridge’s actions are clear violations of state law and also of public trust,” DNR Commissioner Sarah Strommen said in a news release. “This never should have happened, and we are holding the company fully accountable.” 

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In an email to MPR News, Enbridge said it is reviewing the DNR order and penalty. A spokesperson said the company is implementing a corrective action plan and shares a strong desire to protect Minnesota waters and the environment.

In construction plans Enbridge submitted during the permitting process for Line 3, the company indicated that it would dig a trench 8-10 feet deep for the pipeline near the Clearbrook Terminal, which is located near calcareous fens — a unique type of wetland that relies on mineral-rich groundwater, said Barb Naramore, deputy DNR commissioner. 

“Based on those plans, we determined that there was no potential for adverse impacts to the fens because the excavation at that depth was not going to interfere with the groundwater flow to the fens,” she said.

Instead, the company allegedly dug a trench about 18 feet deep and drove sheet piling 28 feet down, Naramore said. That pierced the soil layer atop an artesian aquifer — one that contains groundwater under pressure — resulting in a continuous flow of groundwater into the trench, she said. 

The agency estimates that the breach has resulted in the release of about 24.2 million gallons of groundwater from the aquifer — water that Enbridge wasn’t authorized to use, Naramore said. Under state law, that’s considered a “taking” of state water without a permit, she said.

Enbridge did not report the breach to the DNR, Naramore said. It wasn’t until June when DNR staff, during discussions with independent environmental monitors over conditions they’d observed, realized that there was a potential aquifer breach, Naramore said. 

The DNR started an investigation and ordered Enbridge to stop construction in the area until it submitted a plan to correct the flow.

She said the water has been pumped from the trench, treated to remove sediment and released to a nearby wetland.

The DNR’s restoration order requires Enbridge to pay $300,000 in mitigation funds for the loss of groundwater and $250,000 for the monitoring of the calcareous fens. It also ordered the company to place $2.75 million in an escrow account to restore any damage to the fens, if needed. 

The DNR also issued Enbridge its first-ever administrative penalty order for the unpermitted use of groundwater — a tool authorized by the Legislature in 2014. It levied the maximum penalty of $20,000, which is forgivable if the violation is addressed within 30 days.

The DNR is requiring Enbridge to conduct additional groundwater monitoring, report the results and develop a calcareous fen management plan. And it’s requiring the company to pay to re-inspect any other areas along the Line 3 route where it might have dug deeper than planned.

Naramore said the DNR is “extremely disappointed and concerned” with Enbridge’s failure to report the breach. 

However, based on all information available from its staff, the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency and independent monitors, “We don't currently have any concerns about similar kinds of violations perhaps elsewhere on the line,” Naramore said.

Construction on the 340-mile Line 3 replacement pipeline, which follows a partly new route across northern Minnesota, began last December and is nearly complete. Enbridge expects to have it in service by the fourth quarter of this year.