Crews scour Sandpiper pipeline route: Environmental, cultural review underway across northern Minnesota
WRENSHALL, Minn. — Charlie Peliska dug a mostly square hole about 18 inches deep and then sifted through the Carlton County dirt that he uncovered.
The archeological technician was looking for signs of life long since passed — signs of significant human activity 50, 100 or even 1,000 years ago in this old farm field.
He was just 150 feet or so away from the proposed route for Enbridge Energy’s planned $2.6 billion Sandpiper pipeline that will move North Dakota crude oil 616 miles to Superior, Wis. And Peliska and hundreds of other cultural and environmental crew members like him are doing the same thing along the entire route.
The Sandpiper line is needed, supporters say, to alleviate the bottleneck of crude oil that North Dakota is pumping for the rest of America but for which there aren’t enough pipelines or rail cars to ship it to refineries. Sandpiper, if built, would move 15.8 million gallons of oil a day across northern Minnesota, some 20 percent of all the crude out of the Bakken oilfield region.
Enbridge and its contractors are dealing with more than 2,100 landowners, buying easements to cross their property. So far, the company says, 96 percent of landowners have welcomed the surveyors.
Enbridge wants to show the public what environmental protections are built in to the process of building such a massive pipeline. Sandpiper, expected to be built starting next year and moving crude oil by 2016, will be the state’s most expensive private construction project — more than double the cost of the new Vikings football stadium in Minneapolis, for example. That’s on top of hundreds of millions of dollars spent by Enbridge to expand its Alberta Clipper line from Canada to Superior, increase storage capacity in Superior and increase pipeline capacity from Superior to refineries in states to the south and east.
Along the proposed Sandpiper route, the survey crews are tracking across a 250-foot-wide swath for all 616 miles.
“We had 80,000 man hours on the environmental survey last year and we’ll have another 70,000 this year. It’s a huge undertaking with hundreds of people out in the field,” said Paul Meneghini, senior manager, environment, for Enbridge in Duluth, Minn.
Last month Enbridge received North Dakota’s approval to build that portion of the Sandpiper line. A Minnesota administrative law judge on Wednesday is expected to release the schedule laying out the process to consider the Minnesota portion of the line.
Enbridge expects public hearings to be held on both the need for the pipeline and the route, simultaneously, over the winter, likely in December and early January, with a final Minnesota Public Utilities Commission decision coming in May 2015. If the line and route are approved, construction would begin immediately after that. The company wants oil moving through the line early in 2016, after a massive construction effort involving thousands of workers.
If the PUC doesn’t approve the company’s proposed route, Enbridge will have to go back and do the surveying all over again along whatever route is approved. If no line is approved, Enbridge will have paid millions of dollars in contactor fees for naught.
Along the route
If Peliska, the archeological technician, found anything — arrowheads, pottery, prehistoric tools, bones — he would call in more help and crews would determine if that site was a significant archeological find or just an old garbage dump. Depending on those findings, Enbridge might have to reroute the pipeline, called a go-around, or maybe pay to remove the artifacts.
More often than not, however, Peliska and his counterparts from Commonwealth Cultural Resources Group replace their divots and move on.
Just down the same field, Scott Milburn, a botanist with another contractor, St. Paul, Minn.,-based Midwest Natural Resources, was recording a wetland that his crew found along the pipeline route. It was charted on a computer tablet, marked with GPS and categorized as a wet meadow.
There was no sign of water there under a hot summer sun. But vegetation, such as buttercups and other wetland plants, were a clear indicator that this was a true, if only seasonal, wetland, important for a host of plants, birds, bugs and animals.
“This is already disturbed land, so this is not exactly a high-priority wetland,” Milburn said, noting the field probably had been farmed before it became a path for six existing Enbridge pipelines; the Sandpiper line would be the seventh Enbridge pipeline running underground there. “But it’s a wetland and we still have to map everything.”
Enbridge insists it’s following every state and federal rule regarding wetlands and other environmental safeguards as it plans a route for the massive new pipeline.
But critics say it may not be enough. The Sandpiper route across water-rich northern Minnesota has too many places where things could go wrong, they say — dozens of open water and hundreds of wetland crossings. The Minnesota Pollution Control Agency found at least 28 water crossings where it would be difficult or impossible to get oil spill cleanup crews to the site, if a spill ever occurred, because they are so far from any road.
The Minnesota Department of Natural Resources has suggested that Enbridge install extra shutoff valves near more water crossings, an add-on the company said it will consider.
Meneghini says such precautions are part of the process. The pipe used under major water crossings, for example, is much thicker than traditional pipe. So is any pipe laid under a roadway.
Moreover, pipeline industry officials say, there is ample demand for the low-cost, domestic oil, and pipelines are inherently safer than moving oil by truck or rail. The Sandpiper line will carry the equivalent of more than 4,000 trucks or 2,000 rail cars every day.
The company also will avoid wetlands if possible. But in most cases any wetlands disturbed are replaced and repaired on site with the pipeline at least 4 feet below the surface. Enbridge still has to purchase wetland credits for the temporary right to disturb any wetlands, Meneghini noted. For major water crossings, the pipe ends up at least 30 feet below the bottom of the river.
Enbridge has received closer scrutiny after a July 2010 pipeline rupture and spill of 900,000 gallons of western Canadian oil into Michigan’s Kalamazoo River, a Lake Michigan tributary. An environmental group’s report claimed that, although $1 billion has been spent to clean up the river, the Kalamazoo still is adversely affected by oil that sank to the river bottom.
Enbridge and its predecessor, Lakehead Pipeline, have had problems in Minnesota as well. A Duluth News Tribune investigation in 2010 found that over the past 30 years, nearly 1.5 million gallons of oil have spilled out of the Enbridge/Lakehead pipelines in northern Minnesota — much of it into wetlands and some of it close to the Mississippi River.
In one case, tens of thousands of gallons of spilled oil were set on fire to avoid causing more serious environmental damage. The company, then Lakehead, was responsible for one of Minnesota’s largest-ever spills, in 1991, when 600,000 gallons escaped a pipe near Grand Rapids. At the time of the 2010 report, data from the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency showed 145 spills had occurred since the company became Enbridge, though only 10 were greater than 1,000 gallons.
Houston-based Enbridge Energy, a subsidiary of a Calgary-based company, says it is working to find the least environmentally sensitive route for the line. It’s also planning to lay the line, when possible, where it would have the least impact on humans.
Already the proposed route has been changed to accommodate several Carlton County organic farmers who didn’t want it on their property at all. The line also was moved south of Grand Forks, at the suggestion of city and county officials there, to avoid that city’s expected future growth.
Enbridge also proposed a new route for the pipeline, outside the company’s historic east-west path across northern Minnesota roughly along U.S. Highway 2. East of Clearbrook, the new route would take the Sandpiper line farther south, near Park Rapids, before heading east to Superior.
That helps avoid the Chippewa National Forest and the cities of Cass Lake and Bemidji, “where people had kind of said ‘enough is enough’ with the number of pipelines we had going through there. So we listened to them” and moved the line south, Meneghini said. “Even in other areas, like Grand Rapids and Cohasset, there’s a lot of homes being built right up to the right of way. It’s getting more and more difficult to add more lines.”
The new route, if approved, still would follow other company pipelines and electrical transmission line corridors for most of the route, Meneghini noted.
Still, opposition to the Sandpiper has slowly been building, from individuals opposed to the line crossing their land and from groups opposed to increased fossil fuel use. Others say the threat of oil spills that could harm sensitive northwoods lands and waters is too high.
One Native American environmental group is advocating moving the entire pipeline south, toward the Twin Cities, without ever bringing the oil to Superior, thus avoiding the Minnesota lakes country altogether. Another plan, by the Hubbard County-based group Friends of the Headwaters, suggests the new pipeline should go from North Dakota into South Dakota, crossing only southwestern Minnesota before going on to Chicago, following an existing natural gas pipeline that Enbridge partially owns.
Enbridge says those options simply wouldn’t work for its current northern distribution center that’s focused on Superior, where multiple pipelines merge and where massive tanks and pumps can receive, store and move oil for crude customers as needed.
Richard Smith, president of Friends of the Headwaters, says Minnesota would assume most of the risk of the Sandpiper line yet see little of the benefit. Most of the oil would keep moving on to refineries near Chicago and eastern cities, he noted.
“We got involved in this because, really, they (Enbridge) couldn’t have proposed a worse route across Minnesota. They are going right through the Straight River aquifer that provides the drinking water for Park Rapids and a lot of wells in this area,” Smith said. “This is a very porous aquifer” that could be quickly polluted with any oil spill.
The group also has proposed alternative routes to Superior, avoiding specific water-rich areas, including the headwaters of the Mississippi River. It will be up to the Public Utilities Commission to decide if the alternatives have merit.
“No matter where it goes, it’s in somebody’s backyard,” Smith noted. “We aren’t going to stop this thing. With a million barrels of oil now coming out of North Dakota every day, it’s going to get to the refineries somehow. The best we can hope for is a route that protects Minnesota’s interests. … That protects our clean water and our fishing and tourism industry.”