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Pipeline comment period deadline questioned

The proposed pipeline route through the Fish Hook River watershed is too vulnerable to leaks and human error, opponents say. Any rupture or oil spill could contaminate a vital chain of lakes, they believe.1 / 3
This view from space shows Minnesota's clearest lakes in the past of the Sandpiper pioeline2 / 3
This shows the susceptibility to contamination, mostly because of the sandy soil type3 / 3

By Sarah Smith

As oil companies scramble to bring Bakken shale to markets and North Dakota towns are among the fastest-growing in the United States, the public comment period for the proposed Sandpiper line through Hubbard County approaches.

It’s currently set for April 4 but may be a moot point if information released at a Thursday night lake association meeting is true.

The race is on in the state that is home to the lucrative Bakken Formation of shale crude oil.

North Dakota Pipeline Company LLC, a division of Enbridge Energy, LLC., is proposing to build the $2.5 billion Sandpiper Pipeline Project through North Dakota and Minnesota to be operational by 2016.

To date Minnesota Administrative Law Judge Eric Lipmann has not issued a scheduling order in conjunction with the March 17 hearing the department conducted.

But Thursday night a bombshell dropped at the Coalition of Lake Associations meeting in Park Rapids.

COLA member Irene Weis, a Big Sand Lake Association resident and township officer of Lake Emma Township, informed her fellow COLA members that the request for additional time had been denied by the ALJ but would not be immediately posted to the docket site.

She said she got the information from Larry Hartman, the PUC official who conducted the route hearings.

Hubbard County and COLA requested an extension until Aug. 1. But the county and the Lake Associations are considered just another customer, as John Doe would be, the PUC told the Enterprise.

Whether that deadline will move is uncertain. At press time, Christine Davis of Enbridge said Thursday the company had not heard anything about whether the deadline would be extended, so Weis’ news came as a shock.

Badoura and Lake Emma Townships and the Long Lake Association, along with other lake associations, also formally requested an extension in the comment deadline.

Hartman did not return a call to the Enterprise before the Friday morning deadline, so the story could not be confirmed. Weis, an employee at a Park Rapids law firm, insisted it was true.

COLA President Dan Kittilson said the group had asked Enbridge officials to discuss the pipeline at COLA’s monthly meetings but the company had declined, saying it preferred speaking to the board, not the membership as a whole.

The superhighway of pipelines will be 610 miles from Tioga, N.D., to Superior, Wis.

Fueling the local opposition

The Sandpiper is not going through the typical environmental review process, which angers Friends of the Headwaters and COLA.

“Crude oil is not even a PUC regulated commodity and crude oil pipelines are certainly not a public utility, but rather a private commodity conveyance system,” said information sent by FOH to the Enterprise, written by an unidentified meter official.

But Doug Kingsley, DNR Fisheries chief in Park Rapids, offered a different opinion.

“An environmental review is pretty comprehensive,” he said.

The north-south route of the Sandpiper follows other pipelines and the east-west route is situated under an existing power line, Kingsley said.

But a power line “doesn’t have the potential impact that a pipeline would,” he added.

Some have recently questioned whether a private company like Enbridge could avail itself of eminent domain powers, which are restricted to the government. That is a process used to take property from owners unwilling to sell for a public project.

But Minnesota Statute Section 117.49 seems to give that power to the North Dakota Pipeline LLC., COLA members discussed.

The PUC, in granting a pipeline, considers the environment, the economy, alternatives and the cumulative effects of future construction.

Then there’s the historical and archaeological impacts, which opponents, especially Native Americans, pointed out.

Many said at a recent Park Rapids hearing that the pipeline traversed sacred grounds. The COLA meeting mentioned the new LaSalle State Recreation Area and many native wild rice fields.

It’s the alternatives that usually trip up the public.

Under administrative law, a lower standard of proof is required by the ALJ.

If the decision was outright unreasonable or erroneous and substantial evidence outweighs the judge’s decision, it can be overturned.

That isn’t likely when Enbridge has chosen the most expedient, cheapest route.

But a “cumulative effect” factor, Kingsley believes, could have an impact.

An existing pipeline that follows Highway 2 through Minnesota is being abandoned.

“The Sandpiper should be considered a cumulative effect,” Kinglsley said.

If an existing pipeline isn’t needed, is the Sandpiper?

Those factors go a long way in determining a route, as residents living along Hubbard County 18 can attest to. Great River Energy was successful in building a power line along that route that came close to some homes.

Kingsley said two other agencies are working on the environmental impact of the pipeline.

But a law professor who spoke at the Park Rapids hearing earlier this month said Native Americans may hold the key in halting or moving the pipeline. He seemed to think that thousands of years of rights to hunt and fish on the land may hold sway with the government.

And Kingsley said the route is not finalized.

“A lot of the plans are still evolving as to how they’re crossing waterways,” he said.

The pipeline crosses the Mississippi River twice and Hay Creek, north of Park Rapids.

A pipeline rupture near Hay Creek would impact the Fish Hook chain of lakes, COLA member Sharon Natzel warned the audience.

Natzel also presented figures from the Hubbard county Assessor’s office indicating how many seasonal residences there are in the county, and the importance of extending the public comment deadline until they return.

COLA members voted to overnight a letter to the PUC asking for an extension, but has otherwise remained neutral on the issue.

“I think it’s important we remain neutral,” said COLA member Theora Goodrich.

In a holding period?

Davis said things are in a holding period for now.

Eventually hearings will be conducted on the company’s Certificate of Need process, much like the route hearings were conducted.

“We haven’t heard anything different on the route” process, Davis added.

Sarah Smith

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

(218) 732-3364