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Pipeline opponents vocal at PUC hearing

Richard Smith holds up a photographic screen with a pinprick hole in the center to illustrate how much oil might escape a pipeline leak. (Sarah Smith / Enterprise)

By Sarah Smith

Like a tsunami with tidal waves pounding relentlessly, opponent after opponent took the microphone at the Armory Square auditorium Wednesday to voice disapproval of a crude oil pipeline proposed for Hubbard County.

Objections poured forth on grounds of necessity, safety and sovereign tribal rights.

“You’re about to affect water my family has used for centuries,” said Jasmine Larson to applause. “Get out of our land,” she admonished. “You don’t know what you’re doing.”

Officials at Enbridge, Energy Co., Inc., and the Minnesota Public Utilities Commission, which conducted the public hearing, even added an hour on to allow all the naysayers to give voice to their objections. The hearing lasted four hours.

The company had anticipated the negativity, said Enbridge spokeswoman Christine Davis.

Company officials politely answered all questions directed at them, but could not promise a 30-inch pipeline through Minnesota’s pristine lake country would be leak-proof.

The pipeline would transmit oil from the Bakken formation in western North Dakota to Superior, Wis., for shipment by barge. It would be buried at 54 inches in depth unless a property owner waived that state requirement.

The hearing and the process

Larry Hartman, environmental review manager of the state’s Department of Commerce, conducted the hearing.

“The PUC is not advocating for anyone or any position,” he told the packed house in introductory comments.

The application for the pipeline would be judged on its merits after a series of public and evidentiary hearings along the route. The public hearings at several towns along the route ended March 13. The public comment period ends April 4 although numerous speakers urged a longer time to digest the mountain of information disclosed.

Evidentiary hearings will begin next fall.

Last week the Hubbard County Board asked for an extension to Aug. 1. The PUC declined to say if it would give that request additional weight from the hundreds of comments that have already been submitted.

Barry Simonson, spokesman for Enbridge, told the audience that 99 percent of the Hubbard County pipeline would be “co-located” with an existing Minn-Can pipeline. Some audience members openly scoffed, as they did when Simonson reiterated the company’s goals of safety, integrity and respect for the landowners.

A certificate of need and a route permit are currently under discussion simultaneously, Hartman said, signaling the beginning of the process. If there’s no need, no pipeline would be built.

But more than one speaker questioned the need, indicating that the large crowd had driven to the hearing, using petroleum-fired vehicles.

The opponents

Bob Merritt, a former hydrologist and geologist for the DNR, led off the comment period with a lengthy discourse on his inability to get detailed information from the company and the effect a leak would have on the region.

“It’s ludicrous for a foreign company to withhold information under the Freedom of Information Act,” Merritt said. Enbridge is based in Canada.

“Petroleum is virtually impossible to remove from an aquifer” once spilled, Merritt said.

If such a spill occurred “Park Rapids would have to replace its water supply well,” Merritt added, pointing out that Osage and Perham have already replaced theirs.

Richard Smith said he’d done some calculations based on the company’s 99.993 percent safety rate.

If 375,000 barrels a day were moving through Park Rapids that would be more than 15 million gallons and the spill rate would be 110 gallons per day.

“How soon do you know you’re missing that 110 gallons?” Smith asked.

Smith, who said “he was not against the pipeline per se,” added that going through lakes country, where tourism contributes $30 million to the economy, was an ill-conceived idea.

“I’m shocked that politicians and bureaucrats consider this route” the best, given “the dubious safety record” of the company.

He demonstrated with a circular photographic screen with a pinprick in the center to show the rate of flow in a leak.

He said he doubted the company’s claim that it would perform visual inspections by plane or helicopter every two weeks.

“We have snow five months of the year,” Smith said. He said he spoke for many of the county’s residents who are “Snowbirds” during winter.

Resident Dewane Morgan, an organic farmer, urged the company to “take a long-term view of what you’re planning.”

John Hitchcock said he agreed that the nation and region have long-term energy needs for the future, but wondered if the barged oil would be exported to other countries.

Environmental activist Barry Babcock said the Mississippi River in the region is the “last 40 miles of wilderness” along the 2,000 mile river.

The pipeline should be going south away from the lakes and pines region, he said, punctuating his speech with Ojibway language.

“Twenty years from now oil will have less value than this water,” Babcock said to a standing ovation.

Many, including Lowell Schellack, questioned the statistical probability of a leak and whether the pipeline, like a ship, could be double-hulled.

Twenty percent of the route through Hubbard County contains 40 percent of the block valves, one Enbridge spokesman said.

Opponent Sharon Natzel said she only counted only one valve at Milepost 445 on the route.

“Anything is possible, there are no guarantees in life,” said Enbridge projects senior director Mark Curwin.

An environmental review will be incorporated into the permitting process, Hartman said.

Schellack, along with others, requested a full environmental review of the process and an extension.

“I’m very fearful of a severe spill,” said Maurice Spangler a retired physician. Preventing disease is preferable to treating it, and he likened that to the pipeline’s potential harm.

William Mitchell law professor Peter Erlinder said Native American hunting and fishing rights supercede Enbridge’s right to place a pipeline through the state. Treaties from the 1800s are still legal.

“The Indians’ hunting and fishing rights are gonna protect all of us,” he said to applause from the substantial number of Native Americans who attended the hearing.

Dawn Goodwin reiterated that the health risks are unknown from a pipeline. “We’re human beings,” she said. We don’t have immortal life.”

Indian people “have lived on this land longer than a 65-year-old corporation,” said Winona LaDuke, reminding the audience of 8,000 years of Native residency.

LaDuke and most of the opponents mentioned an Enbridge spill in the Kalamazoo River in Michigan which took months to clean and closed a 35-mile section of river for two years. LaDuke and others criticized Enbridge that only a preliminary route was presented on a Minnesota map that did not include the Mississippi River or the White Earth Indian Reservation. A tribal radio station was live broadcasting the hearing, she said.

She also criticized the company for purchasing right-of-way leases for inflated values.

“You’re putting the cart before the horse.”

The lone supporter, leases

Bemidji trucker Ken Duncanson bravely faced the hostile crowd to address “the great amount of misinformation” being circulated in connection with the pipeline.

“They are extremely concerned about safety,” he said of Enbridge.

“Unless you rode a horse here, you used petroleum,” he said. “Oil is a fact of life.”

Duncanson said since there are no refineries in the region, the oil must be moved to refineries elsewhere.

“Pipelines are the safest way to transport oil there is,” he said to boos.

He pointed out to the crowd that ”a 100 percent safety record is not attainable.”

Many other supporters kept their thoughts to themselves, including some city and county leaders who attended but did not speak.

Company officials answered a few questioned directed to them, but mostly listened and took notes.

The emotionally-charged hearing ended as it began four hours earlier.

Hubbard County Recorder Nicole Lueth said, “We did record one deed to Enbridge Pipelines (North Dakota) LLC back in November of 2013.  The property was in section 34 of Straight River Township.  It would not be atypical for Enbridge’s land acquisition subsidiary or subcontractor to submit a larger batch of documents at one time versus sending them one at a time as the acquisitions or easements are signed.”

On March 17, there will be a scheduling conference set to plan the evidentiary hearings and a schedule for an administrative law judge to issue a report.

Sarah Smith

Sarah Smith is the outdoors editor. She covers courts, business and breaking news in addition to outdoors events.

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