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Richard Smith of the Friends of the Headwaters organization speaks about the Enbridge Sandpiper oil pipeline to members of the Whitefish Area Property Owners' Association and other area lake associations. Photo by Chelsey Perkins

WAPOA hosts speaker on Sandpiper oil pipeline

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Richard Smith is one of "a bunch of volunteers learning more than they ever wanted to know about pipelines." A member of Friends of the Headwaters (FOH), a Hubbard County-based group organized around opposition to the proposed Sandpiper oil pipeline, Smith spoke Tuesday, July 22, at the Fifty Lakes Foundation Building, urging members of area lake associations to get involved.

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The Whitefish Area Property Owners' Association (WAPOA) hosted the event, which attracted more than 55 people representing 15 individual area lakes. Although the proposed pipeline, which will carry oil from North Dakota, will not pass through the Whitefish Chain area, it cuts straight across the Pine River Watershed, of which the Whitefish Chain is a major body of water.

"I think that's the reason why you're all here ... you love water," Smith said. "There has to be a better way to do this, and now's an opportunity."

FOH is opposed to the proposed route for multiple reasons, citing danger from spills to eight state forests and 13 trout streams and area drinking water supplies.

The Minnesota Pollution Control Agency (MPCA) has identified 28 water crossings along the route that would be very difficult or impossible to reach should an oil spill occur.

In a letter to the Minnesota Department of Commerce (DOC), the agency tasked with performing the energy environmental review of the proposed pipeline and making a recommendation to the Public Utilities Commission (PUC) on potential alternate routes, Patrice Jensen of the MPCA addressed the issue of these crossings.

"The lack of possible access to these areas by people and equipment necessary to clean up spills increases the likelihood that an incident could result in significant long-term environmental damage," she wrote. "A failure to account for these possibilities is considered to be a substantial flaw with the currently proposed Sandpiper route."

According to the company's website, Enbridge boasts a 99.9993 percent safe delivery record when it comes to crude oil.

"We're investing heavily in the tools, technologies and strategies to ensure our energy transportation and distribution systems operate safely, reliably and in an environmentally responsible manner," the site reads. "Our goal is - and will always be - to prevent all releases from our energy transportation, generation and distribution infrastructure. No incident, spill or release will ever be acceptable to us."

Still, spills happen, more than 800 on Enbridge pipelines in the United States and Canada between 1999 and 2010, according to a study conducted by the Polaris Institute, a public interest research organization based in Canada.

FOH and other stakeholders are concerned about the spills that do happen, no matter how small the chance may be, and the effect an oil spill could have on what they believe is an extremely sensitive ecosystem. Smith presented four state maps that he said shows that Enbridge "couldn't have picked a worse place to put a pipeline."

The first map from the University of Minnesota Water Resources Center shows water clarity of the state's lakes. The proposed route cuts across one of the greatest concentrations of the clearest lakes in the north central part of the state.

A second map shows wetland concentration by county. In all of the counties the proposed route crosses, except for the two most western counties, at least 20 percent of the land is covered by wetlands. In Mille Lacs County, more than 40 percent of the land is wetlands. Most counties in western and southern Minnesota have no more than 10 percent wetland coverage.

A third map, prepared by the MPCA, shows groundwater contamination susceptibility in the state. According to the map, the proposed route crosses some of the most susceptible groundwater in central Minnesota.

The last map meant to illustrate the environmental sensitivity of the areas surrounding the proposed route shows all of the lakes in the state where wild rice grows. Almost all of these lakes are located in central and northeastern Minnesota, with a number also located along the southeastern border with Wisconsin. Three of the five counties boasting the heaviest concentrations of wild rice lakes, according to the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources (DNR) - Cass, Crow Wing and Aitkin - would be crossed by the pipeline.

FOH proposed some alternate routes, including a drastically moved route that would roughly follow the Interstate 94 corridor to south of the Twin Cities, sending the crude to Chicago.

A July 16 analysis by the DOC of proposed alternatives did not endorse any of the proposals that included moving the route completely, stating that none of the eight alternatives suggesting a complete re-route, including four submitted by FOH, met "the purpose of the project as identified in the permit application."

The purpose the DOC refers to is "to transport growing supplies of oil produced in North Dakota to the terminals in Clearbrook, Minnesota, and Superior, Wisconsin," as quoted from Enbridge in the report. Enbridge first applied for route approval in November 2013.

The DOC did suggest the PUC "may want to consider" studying modified versions of two of these routes, however, including a route endorsed by the MPCA, which has four difficult-to-access crossings, compared to the 28 in Enbridge's route. These potential modifications would add a route to Clearbrook.

Smith said he will be testifying before the PUC in August to state his organization's case on why the route should be modified to avoid the lakes of central Minnesota.

"I'm of the mind that these alternative routes they are proposing are just placebos ... they have to propose alternates so they have something to compare it to," he said. "Why is the state allowing Enbridge to dictate the terms of this process?"

In a July 18 Star Tribune article, Enbridge spokeswoman Lorraine Little said the company believes the route they've proposed is still "the best for the project."

"That route meets the project objectives and still minimizes impacts to people and the environment," she told reporter David Shaffer.

More than 1,000 public comments have been submitted regarding the Sandpiper, according to the DOC report. Of these, 459 expressed opposition, 37 expressed support and the rest posed concerns about environmental and other issues.

An additional public comment period will be held in January 2015, and the final decision on the route is set to be made the following May.

When an audience member at the WAPOA event asked Smith whether anyone had ever won a battle against Enbridge, he responded, "No. They almost always get exactly what they want."

Others in attendance questioned how to feel motivated to become more involved with this knowledge.

Chuck Diessner, a member of the Potato Lake Association in Hubbard County, spoke up.

"If we don't have all your help, we're going to lose. Together, we've got a chance," he said. "If you walk out of here discouraged, you're going to get exactly what you deserve."

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Chelsey Perkins
Chelsey Perkins grew up in Crosslake and is a graduate of Pequot Lakes High School. She earned her Bachelor's degree in professional journalism from the School of Journalism and Mass Communication at the University of Minnesota - Twin Cities. Perkins has interned at the Lake Country Echo and the Rochester and Austin Post-Bulletins and also worked for the student-run Minnesota Daily newspaper as a copy editor and columnist during college. She went on to intern at Utne Reader magazine, where she was later hired as the research editor. Before joining the Brainerd Dispatch, Perkins worked as a staff writer for the Pineandlakes Echo Journal.
(218) 855-5874
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