Enbridge faces criminal charge, more fines over Line 3 construction

People walk around a construction site.
Activists occupy construction equipment at an Enbridge Line 3 pump station near Park Rapids, Minn.
Evan Frost | MPR News 2021

Updated: Oct. 18, 8 a.m.

Enbridge Energy faces a criminal charge and additional financial penalties related to construction of the Line 3 pipeline last year.

Minnesota Attorney General Keith Ellison announced on Monday that his office is filing one misdemeanor count against Enbridge in Clearwater County District Court for using state waters without a permit.

While installing the 330-mile crude oil pipeline across northern Minnesota in January of 2021, Enbridge crews punctured an underground aquifer in Clearwater County, causing uncontrolled flows of groundwater.

Ellison said Enbridge “admitted that it understood or should have understood that the aquifer breach resulted from its construction activity” and that it delayed notifying state agencies about the breach as required. 

The charge will be dismissed after one year if Enbridge pays a $1,000 fine and remains law abiding.

In a news release, Ellison said a misdemeanor is the only available charge that the state can support with probable cause under current state law. But he called it “an important step forward in holding Enbridge accountable for the damage it caused to Minnesota’s water and environment, and for restoring that damage.” 

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Winona LaDuke, executive director and co-founder of Honor the Earth said she applauds the attorney general for filing a criminal charge and praises the tribes, volunteer water monitors and water protectors who warned of the damages Line 3 could bring.

“The state agencies, DNR and MPCA, that also took action today, consistently failed Minnesota’s natural resources and Indigenous treaty rights and lands by allowing this dangerous project, which continues to exacerbate the climate crisis. Remember that the aquifer is still hemorrhaging water and the level of contamination is increasing. I also ultimately wonder why I went to jail and Enbridge did not,” she said.

Also on Monday, the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency, the Department of Natural Resources and the Fond du Lac Band of Lake Superior Chippewa announced an enforcement action against Enbridge for water quality violations during Line 3 construction.

Those include accidental releases of drilling mud at a dozen locations, and two other aquifer breaches at LaSalle Creek in Hubbard County and near the Fond du Lac Reservation. They also include discharges of stormwater from construction sites, which can contain sediment that smothers plants and clouds the water, into wetlands.

Combined with previous DNR enforcement action related to Line 3, Enbridge will pay a total of than $11 million in penalties, environmental projects and financial assurances for restoration or monitoring, if it’s needed.

“This agreement is an important step to protect the band’s resources and ensures that Enbridge will be liable for any future damage that may be discovered from the aquifer breach,” Chairperson Kevin Dupuis stated.

The Line 3 pipeline started transporting oil in October of last year. In a statement, Enbridge said the pipeline was built “under the most comprehensive regulatory framework in the history of Minnesota,” including permits from federal, state, local and tribal authorities. 

“This included construction oversight by agency and tribal monitors with the authority to stop construction at any time,” the statement read. “When events were identified, Enbridge reported them transparently and corrected them consistent with plans approved by the agencies.”

Enbridge stated that it acknowledges it inadvertently breached an aquifer near the Clearbrook terminal in Clearwater County, and “has worked tirelessly to address the issue” with the DNR and other state agencies. The company fundamentally disagrees with the attorney general that it committed any criminal act, the statement read.

Minnesotans for Line 3, a coalition of cities, labor unions and others that support the project, called the enforcement action “the result of continued efforts by project opponents to ignore reality and enormous economic benefits to main street Minnesota.”