Activists asked to leave Enbridge pipeline community meeting

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  Activists record on their cell phones as Bemidji Police officer William Beise asks Winona LaDuke, who founded Honor the Earth, to leave a community meeting hosted by Enbridge Energy Partners on Tuesday at the DoubleTree by Hilton in Bemidji.

BEMIDJI, Minn. — A community meeting hosted by energy company Enbridge quickly dissolved Tuesday after a Bemidji police officer asked environmental activist Winona LaDuke to leave.

The meeting, held at the DoubleTree hotel in Bemidji, was meant to give community members and landowners information about the proposed replacement of Line 3, an Enbridge oil pipeline that runs from Alberta, Canada, through northern Minnesota to Superior, Wis.

LaDuke, who founded the Native-led environmentalist group Honor the Earth, and other activists hoped to ask Enbridge questions regarding the maintenance of the old pipeline if it is replaced with a new one. A Bemidji police officer asked LaDuke to leave after she and other activists tried to quiet the tightly-packed room about 15 minutes after the meeting began.

"They held an informational meeting — and a lot of people attended — and they didn't seem willing to answer questions," LaDuke said as multiple officers told attendees to leave the room. "They were not prepared to give answers."

As the officer repeatedly told LaDuke to leave, saying he had been asked to do so by Enbridge, others in the crowd took video, telling the officer that it was a public meeting and that LaDuke should be allowed to stay and speak.

Shannon Gustafson, Enbridge's media relations supervisor, said shortly after the meeting began that Enbridge would continue to monitor the pipeline "for years to come."

"We'll continue to keep landowners informed that there are pipelines with a 'call before you dig' program, we monitor with bi-weekly aerial flyovers, we do right-of-way walking tours along the pipeline to make sure everything looks OK," Gustafson said. "Whether that pipeline is active or not, we're responsible for that pipe."

Gustafson said the environmental impact statement for the project got underway last week and will be completed in the spring. There will be an opportunity for public comment on the draft of the statement in April or May, followed by a contested case proceeding before the Public Utilities Commission makes a decision on the project's permit. Enbridge hopes to have the pipeline in service by 2019.

Some who attended the meeting were disappointed with the format. The room was crowded, with no chairs. Audrey Thayer, a citizen who attended the meeting, said she had hoped for a more formal presentation.

"You couldn't hear, you couldn't sit," Thayer said. "It was a well-planned event to not hear us; that's what it was."

Gustafson described the meeting as "informal" with "just one-on-one conversations" in an email sent before the event.

Enbridge personnel left the room as the officer asked LaDuke to leave. Gustafson later said Enbridge had asked three police officers to be present. Three officers — two in uniform, one in plain clothes — were inside the room during the meeting.

Once the meeting disbanded, more officers appeared in the hallway, one in a Beltrami County Sheriff's Office uniform. Seven law enforcement vehicles were parked outside the hotel.

"It's disappointing that we weren't able to continue having the conversations that we came here to have," Gustafson said, adding, "We think public input is so important in our operations and our projects. We value all opinions, all input."

Gustafson later released a statement that characterized the activists as "disrespectful."

"It's disappointing that we weren't able to continue having the conversations that we came here to have," Gustafson said, adding, "We think public input is so important in our operations and our projects. We value all opinions, all input."

A similar community meeting is scheduled for Wednesday in Clearbrook.