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Enbridge's oil pipe dream, and the Minnesotans who don't believe them

When Winona Laduke and her sister recently rode along Enbridge's line 3, on the Fond du Lac Reservation, Laduke commented: "Holy buckets, that don't look good."

When Winona Laduke and her sister recently rode along Enbridge's line 3, on the Fond du Lac Reservation, Laduke commented: "Holy buckets, that don't look good."

Steve Arnovich spent the 2006 holidays visiting his parents in Superior, Wisconsin. His mom, Elaine, a worrier, brought up a recent propane explosion at a Wisconsin factory that killed three workers and injured dozens.

"Steve, I'm concerned about your job, too," Elaine said.

"Mom," Steve replied, "don't even go there." Steve, a welder, was a strict adherent to safety.

Then a week after Thanksgiving 2007, Elaine got the call. It was Steve's wife, crying so hard Elaine could hardly make out the words, saying someone from Enbridge had come to her house. There was an oil pipeline explosion in Clearbrook, Minnesota. Steve and his partner were missing.

Steve Arnovich and David Mussatti were dead.

After the explosion, Enbridge went cold. Privately, the oil and gas pipeline company told the Arnoviches it wasn't the workers' fault. Publicly, an Enbridge spokesman mused that they may have parked their truck too close to the line, sparking the blast.

Elaine says it was "hard" to hear they were blaming her son, who was always so safe.

"He was such a beautiful person," Elaine Arnovich says. "He didn't deserve that."

A federal investigation later proved it was Enbridge's fault. The company was hit with a $2.4 million fine, pocket change for a company that almost apologized to investors for netting only $1.8 billion last year.

Enbridge operates seven oil lines that move about three million barrels of Canadian crude through Minnesota each day. It wants more.

Its proposed Sandpiper line would move 225,000 barrels of Bakken crude from North Dakota through Minnesota each day. Enbridge also wants to replace one of its oldest lines with a new, higher-capacity tube.

Environmentalists want neither. They're pushing the state to require Enbridge to submit to a detailed environmental impact statement, which would sketch out every possible environmental, societal, and economic impact of a route, and discuss alternatives. Enbridge supports a "robust environmental review," but it's also encouraging regulators to reject "unnecessary bulk and intentional delay."

Enbridge spent about $2 million lobbying state government last year, ranking easily at the top of the energy industry. Its pipe dreams are supported by the Minnesota Chamber of Commerce, as well as unions, which want to see construction jobs in the depressed north. It's a constellation that rarely appears in the political stars.

On the other side are shabbily funded environmental groups. So far, they're winning — by delaying. Enbridge told its stockholders it was going forward with the Sandpiper line back in 2012. Now it doesn't plan to start pushing crude until 2019.

"The opposition on this issue is mindless and fact-free," says Rep. Pat Garofalo (R-Farmington), who chairs the House committee that handles energy policy.

"I own an electric car," he says, "but the transition is not going to take place overnight." For him, the question of pipeline-versus-no-pipeline comes down to a here-or-there question.

"I'd rather have this moving in low-population areas than moving on railroad cars going next to Target Field," Garofalo says.

No argument here. Or even out there: Greg Hagy, mayor of Cohasset, was working as a firefighter in 2002 when an Enbridge line dumped 250,000 gallons in marshland next to his town. The controlled burn filled the air with black smoke.

"People need to understand, with a rail-car derailment, there's no valves to shut off," Hagy says. "If it's about what's safe, I'm going to go with pipeline."

But the opposition won't accept those terms, even the ones reluctant to get involved. Winona LaDuke, a Native activist and onetime running mate of Ralph Nader, doesn't want to be taking on a multi-billion-dollar corporation.

"I would rather be doing other things like growing really cool corn varieties, writing books, ride my horses," says LaDuke, who lives on the White Earth reservation. Pipeline country.

A few weeks ago, LaDuke and her sister rode their horses through the Fond du Lac reservation, just west of Duluth. The LaDukes rode up and down the aging line Enbridge wants to replace. It's a gray-black tube nestled like a sick eel next to woodlands and waterways. It's also unnerving: The line looks old, badly taken care of. In one spot, its exterior had worn through in a gaping hole.

LaDuke says people don't trust Enbridge, and shouldn't.

From 1980 through 2010, Enbridge and its predecessor, Lakehead Pipeline, spilled more than 1.5 million gallons of oil in northern Minnesota. Since 1998, Enbridge has had 145 Minnesota spills, including 10 of more than 1,000 gallons.

We've been lucky. Michigan wasn't: In 2010, the biggest line rupture in American history dumped 840,000 gallons into the Kalamazoo River. Enbridge is still "negotiating" — read: fighting — with the feds, but expects to pay a fine of about $62 million.

Odds are Enbridge will get its way in Minnesota, just with more annoyance than it wanted. North Dakota, which banks on oil flow, has backed the project from the start. Wisconsin is so gung-ho, an obscure language change in state law last year made it easier for Enbridge to claim eminent domain, seizing territory even if landowners don't want to sell.

The hold-up is Minnesota. These lines will be built, but Enbridge is being pressed to explain just why they must appear, and where, and how the company plans to keep from spilling its product all over our shoes. It'll take longer and cost more. Good for us.

Consider it the cost of doing dirty business. 

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