A controversial proposal for a tar sands oil pipeline has led indigenous leaders in Minnesota to threaten an uprising similar to the one near Standing Rock last fall. That conflict began with what tribes described as the federal government’s failure to properly consult with nearby tribal communities prior to permitting the Dakota Access Pipeline project.
In July, Danielle Oxendine Molliver, the tribal liaison brought on by Minnesota’s Department of Commerce to consult with indigenous leaders about Enbridge Energy’s Line 3 pipeline, resigned in protest of what she called a flawed environmental review process that lacked transparency, professionalism, and fairness.
In a resignation letter submitted on July 24, Oxendine Molliver stated, “There are a multitude of reasons why I have come to this decision. The single most important one is the failure of the state of Minnesota to fulfill its obligations of good faith and fair dealing with the tribes in connection with the Line 3 project.”
She added, “I feel as though my resignation is the only option to maintain my integrity, commitment, and standing with the tribal communities as both a liaison and indigenous woman.”
In an interview, Oxendine Molliver told The Intercept that the department had not adequately responded to the concerns of tribal members and had marginalized her after Enbridge claimed she was being overly sympathetic to indigenous pipeline opponents.
A moment of clarity came as Oxendine Molliver packed her bag on June 5 to fly to rural Minnesota for the first of 22 public meetings on the draft environmental impact statement she helped write. A superior at the Commerce Department called to inform her that instead of being stationed at a table to field questions about the pipeline’s impact on tribes, Oxendine Molliver would be directing guests to the cookies and coffee.
“I just kind of laughed,” Oxendine Molliver said. “It means Enbridge has the authority to call the governor’s office, who then has the authority to control the permitting process.”
The governor’s office declined to comment on a personnel matter. In a statement, Ross Corson, the director of communications for Minnesota’s Commerce Department, told The Intercept that because Oxendine Molliver “has left state employment, she is not in a position to claim what specific concerns are, or are not, being addressed in the final EIS, which is still being prepared.”
“In this process, the agencies do not advocate for a particular position, but must act as impartial fact-finders for the commission, which also extends to the role of the tribal liaison. Complaints about any possible bias are treated seriously,” Corson added.
Enbridge spokesperson Shannon Gustafson stated, “We’re committed to following the regulatory process for the Line 3 replacement project and only ask that it be a fair and equitable process for everyone involved.”
On Wednesday, Gov. Mark Dayton extended by a week the deadline to publish the final environmental impact statement, to August 17, “in order to provide the Public Utilities Commission (PUC) with the best possible information on which to base its decision.” He noted that the EIS included more than 2,860 public comments. Additional hearings will follow its publication, after which the Public Utilities Commission will use the statement to determine whether the pipeline can go forward.
“Don’t pride yourself on being the state that is better than DAPL,” Oxendine Molliver said. The process “is not transparent.”
Enbridge’s Line 3 pipeline reaches from the center of Canada’s tar sands region in Alberta to Superior, Wisconsin, with most of its 364-mile U.S. portion passing through Minnesota. Line 3 has ruptured multiple times since it was built in the 1960s, resulting in a 1.7-million-gallon spill in 1991 and a 252,000-gallon disaster in 2002, among other accidents. Today, it is corroded and cracked. Given its degraded state, by 2008 the pipeline’s capacity had been reduced. As a penalty for another million-gallon spill in 2010 on a different corroded Enbridge pipeline, the company signed a consent decree with the federal government agreeing to replace Line 3 by December 2017 or undertake additional efforts to prevent ecological harm.
The decree happened to serve Enbridge’s interests, providing a new argument in the company’s efforts to pressure Minnesota’s government to approve a proposal to replace Line 3 and greatly increase its capacity. The new line would expand the 34-inch pipe to 36 inches and increase its current capacity from 390,000 barrels per day to at least 760,000 barrels, closer to what it originally pumped. Meanwhile, the old line would remain in the ground, its combustible material removed and its ends sealed shut.
Five bands of Ojibwe have filed as intervenors in opposition to the Line 3 replacement plan. Affected tribes have expressed concern about leaving the decaying line, which passes through the Fond du Lac and Leech Lake reservations, in the ground. Although the proposed new route does not cross reservation boundaries, it cuts through wild ricing lakes, hunting grounds, and other sacred areas to which indigenous people also have legal rights. And given that tribal members are disproportionately low-income, impacts on their well-being require careful consideration in the environmental review process.
Oxendine Molliver, who previously worked as a tribal liaison in Minnesota’s Human Rights Department, was recruited and loaned to the Commerce Department late in the process to meet with the tribes and ensure their perspectives were included in the draft environmental impact statement. Her hiring was announced on March 28, a month and a half before the draft would be released, on May 15.
With only weeks to meet with 11 tribes and incorporate their concerns, Oxendine Molliver began flying to tribal areas around the state. “I thought better late than never. I came in thinking really optimistically,” she said. “No one’s going to be pro-pipeline, but how can we get it transparent, so their story is told in the document?”
The meeting that led Enbridge to report her to the governor’s office was on May 31, with the Minnesota Chippewa tribe. Oxendine Molliver introduced herself as a member of the Lumbee tribe from North Carolina: “As a working mother and as an activist and as someone who wants to participate, I am honored to see you all make that happen for your families, and I am honored by the gentle way you have pushed the systems in which you have to work.”
“Folks [have] said to me offline, ‘I don’t know how you do it. I don’t know why as a native you even want to discuss the pipeline or be involved at any level on a project like that,’” she said. “You’ve got to infiltrate — you’ve got to be part of the system. We need more leaders, we need more people who are qualified who have the traditional knowledge, who have the sovereign knowledge, who have the language, culture — we need those folks to be in the systems with which we have to operate.”
She told attendees that the draft environmental impact statement did not offer any opinions, only facts that could guide decisions. However, she assured the audience, “I think that there are conclusory comments there if we really listen.” She read aloud a portion of the draft:
Any route, route segment, or system alternative would have a long-term detrimental effect on tribal members and tribal resources. The impacts cannot be categorized by duration (short-term or permanent) or by extent (region of interest, construction work area, permanent right-of-way). It is also not possible to determine which alternative is better when each alternative affects tribal resources, tribal identity, and tribal health.
If Enbridge had had its way, there would be no environmental impact statement at all. The process is not always required for pipelines and is frequently controversial. In 2015, a Minnesota court sided with environmental groups and forced the state to undertake the impact statement process for both Line 3 and another controversial proposed Enbridge pipeline, Sandpiper, which would have transported oil obtained via fracking from North Dakota’s Bakken region. After years of pushback from indigenous and environmental opponents, Enbridge axed the Sandpiper project in fall 2016.
Under the Obama administration, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers launched an environmental impact statement for the Dakota Access Pipeline, at the height of the NoDAPL movement. The process, which would have delayed construction, was effectively canceled by President Donald Trump when he took office in January.
After being sidelined, Oxendine Molliver spent meeting after meeting ushering guests to the refreshments, but at a final meeting held just for tribal members, on June 27, she was struck by images presented by Sheila Lamb, who is Ojibwe and Cherokee and has long been involved in environmental activism. They showed long lines of pipe being transported by truck and rail, and stacked inside a fence.
“There are staging areas already,” Lamb said, according to a transcript of the proceedings. “The newest one is between Kettle River and Rice. It is a huge fenced area with barbed wire on top, the whole nine yards, where they’re taking the pipes to. We’re talking trucks running every 10 to 15 minutes carrying in pipes. As of yesterday, there were 35 carloads of pipes just that we could count sitting right in Carlton.”
“Is this already a done deal?” Lamb asked the Commerce Department officials. Her question touched issues that extended beyond the scope of the environmental impact statement. Enbridge has already started construction in the Canadian provinces of Alberta and Saskatchewan, as well as on the 12-mile segment in Wisconsin. Minnesota is the last state that hasn’t granted regulatory approval, giving it huge sway in determining the future of the pipeline.
Jamie MacAlister, a project manager for the Commerce Department, replied to Lamb, “[Decision-makers] don’t know that there’s pipes stacked up out here. In fact, I didn’t know there was pipes stacked up out here until I came to this meeting.” She added, “Enbridge does not have any permits. They’re not allowed to do any construction until they receive those permits.”
Indeed, Enbridge lacked any permit to begin building the pipeline. But that didn’t mean the company couldn’t start getting ready. It had received five construction stormwater permits from the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency in 2015 for Line 3 storage yards along the proposed routes.
But Oxendine Molliver says the Commerce Department avoided making that clear. A few weeks after the meeting, she arranged a sit-down with Lamb and the department’s commissioner, Mike Rothman, who expressed concern and told Lamb the department would look into the issue, according to Lamb and Oxendine Molliver. Shortly afterward, Oxendine Molliver said she was told by two Commerce Department officials that Enbridge did have permits, but the department was “keeping it on the down-low.”
While construction of the pipeline itself still required the Public Utilities Commission’s approval, Oxendine Molliver said she “was horrified” by the department’s lack of transparency in response to questions from tribal members. She requested that the staging issue be noted in the EIS, but was rebuffed.
As the department began to finalize the text, she noticed other issues that tribal members had raised were missing from the document. In May, the Fond du Lac band of Lake Superior Chippewa contacted the Minnesota Department of Transportation after hearing that highway construction had begun on top of a native cemetery. After halting the project, the agency found human remains at the construction site. The burial site is not far from Enbridge’s preferred pipeline route. Tribal members expressed concern about the adequacy of gravesite databases and the cumulative impact of seeing relatives’ graves desecrated alongside construction of an unwanted pipeline. Oxendine Molliver asked that language be added to the text.
Other issues were described in ways that failed to convey why they were meaningful to communities near the pipeline route. The draft included a section on the history of the Sandy Lake Ojibwe community, for example, describing how in 1850, thousands of Ojibwe were forced to migrate from Wisconsin in order to receive the annual supplies promised to them in treaties; when only three days’ worth of supplies arrived, hundreds of people died. The draft did not mention that the group’s descendants still live in the area, many of them in poverty. And a reader would have to compare maps to understand that the pipeline would pass near Sandy Lake, cutting across the route native community members use to reach another Ojibwe community to the south.
And there were things left undone, Oxendine Molliver said. The June 27 meeting with tribal members had not been transcribed, and she said her communications with Commerce officials suggested comments collected there would not be reviewed or incorporated. Broader questions she raised were dismissed. Would the document address the cost to taxpayers of legal actions taken by environmental and indigenous groups related to the pipeline? Would it note that transporting new tar sands oil into the country conflicts with state initiatives, such as Dayton’s membership in the U.S. Climate Alliance?
In her last days as tribal liaison, Oxendine Molliver began hearing complaints from Commerce Department management. She was asked to cancel a planned trip to visit a reservation. She was pulled into a meeting and told that they weren’t sure it was working out. She saw all this as retaliation. As the final version of the EIS was sent to consultants to be finalized, without many of the changes she’d requested, she submitted her resignation letter.
“My best-case scenario was they were going to do this really awesome environmental impact statement, and the facts would be just so staggering,” Oxendine Molliver said. “I thought if you have this document, and the tribes have intervened, you can’t put your finger over your ears and be like lalalala for too long.”
At the meeting that led Enbridge to complain about Oxendine Molliver, Winona LaDuke, a longtime environmental activist who played a key role in the movement to kill Sandpiper, described her takeaways from the draft environmental impact statement. “When you go all the way through it, it says, we heard you. We heard that your people are hurting. We heard that your people can barely hang on. We heard that this is the only land you have. We heard that this is the only wild rice you have. We heard that your communities are already under a lot of duress. We heard that your communities are already sick from contaminants,” she said. “But mitigation is gonna be good.
“We don’t want to throw down a camp like Standing Rock, but this is not Morton County — you’re not getting another pipeline through here,” she added. “And there are hundreds of Ojibwe people and thousands of other people that are going to stop that line if you approve a permit. So we’d just like to stop it before we get to that.”
The final decision on the pipeline isn’t expected until next April.