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Honor the Earth begins pipeline protest in Backus

Lorna Hanes with the Honor the Earth Organization performs a ceremony in preparation for a ride from Backus to Park Rapids along State Highway 87, which roughly follows the proposed route for the Sandpiper Pipeline. Honor the Earth Program Director Winona LaDuke is sitting on a horse in the background. Photo by Travis Grimler.1 / 3
Winona LaDuke, Program Director of Honor the Earth rides on 87 through Backus on her way to Park Rapids in protest of the proposed Sandpiper Oil Pipeline. Photo by Travis Grimler2 / 3
Lorna Hanes lead the Honor the Earth members who decided to ride from Backus to Park Rapids along Highway 87 in protest of the proposed Sandpiper Oil Pipeline route. In some places there was little or no shoulder for the riders, putting them at risk in traffic. Photo by Travis Grimler3 / 3

Critics of a proposed Sandpiper oil pipeline route that would cut through Cass County gathered Monday, July 7, at the Backus Corner Store to bring attention to their concerns.

Attending the event were Winona LaDuke, a former running mate of one-time presidential candidate Ralph Nader, members of the Union Congregational Church of Hackensack and the Northwoods Unitarian Universalist Church of the Pine River and Brainerd lakes area, representatives from local lake associations, local residents and members of the Honor the Earth Organization, a Native American-based organization.

The Sandpiper is an oil pipeline that Enbridge Inc. is proposing to stretch 616 miles from Beaver Lodge Station in North Dakota to a refinery in Superior, Wisconsin. The proposed route cuts through Cass County and crosses between Backus and Pine River, following the right-of-way of a local power line.

The route also crosses the Pine River and other water bodies and has attracted attention from groups like Honor the Earth, who say it is dangerous. The Minnesota Public Utilities Commission is currently discussing the project and the proposed routes. The commission is expected to select alternate routes for consideration on July 24.

Demonstrators carried signs to share their cause with the passing motorists as they waited to send off a dream-inspired horse ride roughly following the proposed pipeline route from Backus to Park Rapids. An example of a sign read, "Put $ in renewables, not pipe dreams."

The five horse riders were members of the Honor the Earth Organization.

LaDuke, Honor the Earth program director, led the meeting. LaDuke has been part of horse ride demonstrations along multiple pipeline routes, including the Alberta Clipper route in September 2013. LaDuke said the ride was inspired by a spiritual dream.

"I started having this dream about riding my horses against the current of the oil, and it was on a pipeline," LaDuke said.

LaDuke was one among those at the demonstration who would prefer to see no pipeline at all. She said the Sandpiper is a poor investment, because oil wells in North Dakota are a finite resource and once the oil there is gone, pipelines connecting the oil fields to refineries could be abandoned.

Minnesota already has abandoned pipelines, and Enbridge has already announced the possibility of ceasing operation of sections of an aging pipeline called "line 3."

Furthermore, Minnesota's lakes area is well known for its clean water and wildlife, which LaDuke and others have argued could be seriously threatened by an oil spill.

"We really need to protect these waters here, because the fact is that none of our communities are prepared for pipeline abandonment, and none of our communities and emergency responders are prepared for a spill, and one of the problems with this area is there is no access (to remote areas)," LaDuke said.

In a response submitted Tuesday, July 8, Lorraine Little, senior manager of U.S. Public Affairs for Enbridge, said all of the company's lines in Minnesota are operational and not abandoned. When it's necessary to deactivate a pipeline, Little said, the company follows a federal government-prescribed process. The pipelines are cleaned, packed, treated with inert gas and then monitored by Enbridge.

Though Honor the Earth would like the Sandpiper to be completely denied, the group has joined concerned citizens, the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources and many others in submitting a proposed alternate route, which addresses the problems they have identified, including proximity to water sources and accessibility issues.

"Honor the Earth is submitting an alternate route of (Highway) 29 and (Interstate) 94. That takes it down to the Twin Cities and they can take it over to Chicago from there. Enbridge doesn't want that, but they have opportunity to do that," LaDuke said.

Little said Enbridge studied the proposed Sandpiper route extensively before proposing it and works with state agencies to evaluate potential impact of each route on wildlife. The company uses that information to design routes that mitigate impact on wildlife.

Little responded to the proposed Highway 29/Interstate 94 route by saying the pipeline needs to connect with the Superior, Wisconsin, terminal because that is an Enbridge hub where storage facilities are located. Twin Cities refineries will be the destination of only some of the oil coming from North Dakota, she said.

The ride by Honor the Earth members was a prelude to a larger ride to begin Aug. 18, LaDuke's birthday. At that time the group intends to travel near the pipeline route, stopping at communities along the way, including Walker and Pine River.

"This is just like a little bit of a prelude or a prequel to get people to understand what we are trying to do," LaDuke said.

LaDuke used Pine River-Backus School as an example of a place where the group might stop to eat, play music and meet with locals. More planning is needed before the larger ride can commence, however, because not all routes are convenient for riding horses. The group's ride along Highway 87 was made difficult by narrow shoulders, bodies of water and steep hills, which meant the group had to travel certain portions of the trip by automobile with their horses in a trailer or risk riding in traffic. LaDuke is looking for local residents to help her plan a safer route for August.

"I need to have a few other people help us figure out the best route and the best places," LaDuke said. "Look at the map between Aitkin and Pine River, Pine River and Walker and find out which route is the best route (passing near the proposed pipeline route)."

LaDuke said they need a route with gravel roads, off-road paths or wide shoulders so the horses are not riding in traffic. The riders will be on horseback from East Lake on the Mille Lacs Indian Reservation to Rice Lake in the White Earth Reservation, taking breaks along the way at night to camp and meet with locals. Other riders are invited to join them for the full trip or for smaller parts.

LaDuke said they also need pastures where the horses can rest, eat and drink at night (they have portable fence) and spotters in front of the group and behind the group to slow down cars and help keep the riders safe.

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