Enbridge Energy is ready to rock construction on a $2.6 billion, 600-mile pipeline for pumping crude oil from North Dakota through huge swaths of northern Minnesota.
Yet American Indian tribes who live in the area where the Sandpiper pipeline is supposed to drop are still clamoring to get a say in the matter. They say that ever since Enbridge announced its vision in April 2013, nobody from either the energy giant or state government has tried to engage the Mille Lacs and White Earth Ojibwe bands in good faith.
The Sandpiper pipeline is meant to cut costs of transporting American crude to American refineries, offsetting the allure of cheap foreign oil. Enbridge claims it could potentially create 1,500 local jobs and fill the state's coffers with more than $60 million in property taxes annually once it's up and running.
But the tribes have their livelihoods to worry about. Enbridge isn't allowed to build directly on reservations, but preliminary plans show it will just skirt tribal boundaries. Any leak or seepage from the pipeline could be catastrophic for human health and wild rice harvests.
Administrative Law Judge Eric Lipman assembled some public hearings over the Sandpiper pipeline in St. Paul, Crookston and other cities, but none close enough to the reservations for most tribal members to actually attend.
"The White Earth band had formally asked the Minnesota Public Utilities Commission to hold a hearing on the reservation, and no hearing was held," says Joe Plummer, a lawyer for White Earth. "State hearings fifty miles away from a community, in the dead of winter, and on short notice, did not constitute consultation."
Gov. Mark Dayton seemed to think tribal members had a right to speak up. In 2013, he signed an executive order telling government agencies to consult directly with American Indian leaders on construction projects that could have an impact on reservations.
That hasn't happened in the case of the Minnesota Public Utilities Commission's (PUC) dealings with White Earth and Mille Lacs. The PUC is now poised to grant a certificate of need permit to Enbridge on Friday, an essential regulatory step to start staking out a specific route.
On Monday, PUC spokesman Dan Wolf submitted a letter to the tribes explaining that PUC was not specifically listed as a "cabinet executive branch agency," so Dayton's executive order didn't apply.
"The terms of that specific executive order aside, the [PUC] has actively sought and has received, and continues to solicit, input from tribal governments and tribal band members," Wolf wrote.
Environmental activists like Winona LaDuke of Honor the Earth were able to make the hearings in the Twin Cities, but most band members couldn't afford the time away and overnight hotel stays, says Susan Klapel of the Mille Lacs Band.
"It's intimidating to be out of an area that you're not familiar with, to sit there in front of five commissioners with the Minnesota Public Utilities Commission to give your statement," she says. "Some families did ask for assistance to go down, but I do know that we have a lot of band members who are passionate about the issue, and we couldn't get there."
The White Earth Band will hold its own public hearing Thursday at 5 p.m. at the Rice Lake Community Center, and the Mille Lacs Band will follow on Friday at 10 a.m. at the East Lake Community Center.
Klapel says she's expecting at least 200 people to show up on Friday. "It doesn't sound like the Minnesota Public Utilities Commission will hold up their vision for our hearing, we're really hoping that they choose another time to consult with us," she says, citing a wish list that includes environmental impact studies and input from the tribal historic preservation offices. "We would be greatly impacted by any type of spill that would ever happen."
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