The Shell River, named for the clams and mussels lining its riverbed, was only a few inches deep where it abutted the Central Minnesota encampment where Dawn Kier and her colleagues were living. From Kier’s perch in a lawn chair near the water on a recent late-summer evening, the river looked calm as it flowed past swaying cattails and thin stands of wild rice nearly ripe enough for harvest. But Kier had a keen knowledge of the complexity beneath the surface.
“There’s this whole water system underneath the riverbed,” Kier explained, as dusk enveloped the canopy of pine trees overhead. “And there are cracks and fissions where the water comes up to the surface.” She worried about what else might be seeping through those cracks, thanks to the construction of the Line 3 pipeline through the region by a Canadian oil company called Enbridge.
“Enbridge drills so far under the water that they risk hitting the aquifers,” Kier said, referring to a spill of drilling fluids known as a frac-out. Such frac-outs have released thousands of gallons of drilling fluids in the region this summer, which can disrupt ecosystems, including suffocating mussels and fish.
Kier has watched water levels in the river, which eventually flows into the Mississippi, fall as much as six inches in a single day as, amid a historic drought, Enbridge drained billions of gallons of water from the tributary to lay pipes under the riverbed.
Kier, an Anishinaabe woman in her late 40s and citizen of White Earth Nation, is living here to protect the region from further harm. (The Anishinaabe are a group of people indigenous to the Great Lakes region in the present-day United States and Canada.) She has been running an encampment here all summer, one of six Indigenous-led camps for people who call themselves water protectors and have been trying to stop construction of Enbridge’s tar sands pipeline.
Line 3, Enbridge’s largest ever project and part of North America’s longest pipeline, zigzags nearly 350 miles across Minnesota and through more than 200 bodies of water. Construction on the project, a rerouting and expansion of an old pipeline, began last December.
Water protectors had high hopes that after a campaign promising to fight climate change, President Joe Biden would revoke permits for the pipeline, but instead, his administration defended the Trump administration’s approval in federal court.
Now the project is more than 90 percent complete — and if finished, it will carry nearly one million barrels of oil each day from the tar sands of Alberta, Canada, to a terminal in Superior, Wisconsin, on the shore of the eponymous Great Lake. That is enough to almost entirely replace the lost supply caused by Biden’s much-vaunted cancellation of the Keystone XL pipeline in January.
Enbridge’s new pipeline is projected to emit the carbon dioxide equivalent of 50 new coal plants, greater than the sum of all other emissions in the state of Minnesota combined.
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