Minnesota Police Want a Pipeline Company to Pay for Weapons Claimed as PPE

Police monitoring Enbridge Line 3 pipeline opponents submitted invoices for tear gas, batons, flash-bang grenades, and other riot gear.

A St. Paul Police vehicle sets up a perimeter on the edge of the Line 3 protest in St. Paul, MN. January 29, 2021.
A police vehicle sets up a perimeter on the edge of the Line 3 protest in St. Paul, Minn., on Jan. 29, 2021. Photo: Tim Evans/NurPhoto via Getty Images

A Minnesota sheriff’s office has requested that the tar sands pipeline company Enbridge reimburse the department for nearly $72,000 worth of riot gear and more than $10,000 in “less than lethal” weapons and ammunition, including tear gas, pepper spray, bean bag and sponge rounds, flash-bang devices, and batons. The sheriff’s office of Beltrami County, which sits at the center of an Indigenous-led fight to stop the construction of Enbridge’s Line 3 pipeline replacement project, labeled the weapons as “personal protective equipment.”

The invoices, some of which were first described by the blog Healing Minnesota Stories, await review by the Minnesota Public Utilities Commission. The agency maintains an escrow account set up so that Enbridge can reimburse public safety agencies for expenses associated with Line 3 construction, especially costs for policing protests. In its construction permit, the utilities commission clarified that the fund “may not be used to reimburse expenses for equipment, except for personal protective gear for public safety personnel.” The commissioners did not define the term “personal protective gear.”

“I don’t think by any stretch of the imagination batons could be considered PPE — or grenades,” said Tara Houska, an organizer with the anti-Line 3 Giniw Collective. “Those are obviously militarized equipment to be used to subdue and oppress the Indigenous people and allies that are resisting this project from going through our territory.”

The Beltrami County Sheriff’s Office did not answer a detailed request for comment.

For nearly a decade, Anishinaabe organizers have fought to stop Line 3, which passes through their treaty lands and traditional territory. Enbridge is replacing a deteriorating pipeline with a new, higher-capacity line that would allow the struggling tar sands industry of Alberta, Canada, to more cheaply send its oil to a transport hub in Wisconsin and then on to refineries on the Gulf Coast. Opponents point to the spill risk the project poses to more than 200 streams and 700 acres of wetlands, as well as the fact that tar sands oil is one of the world’s worst fossil fuels for the climate. One researcher found that the project’s annual carbon output would be equivalent to 50 coal-fired power plants.

So far project opponents haven’t seen law enforcement deploy the munitions that were purchased, said Genna Mastellone of the Line 3 Legal Defense Fund. Since construction began in December, however, she said sheriff’s offices in half a dozen counties have arrested more than 100 project opponents for attempts to stop construction, including by locking themselves to equipment, climbing inside sections of the pipeline, and blocking workers from accessing construction sites.

“Maintaining Peace”

The invoices show that the Beltrami County Sheriff’s Office began purchasing riot gear to respond to Line 3 protests in April 2016, in the immediate aftermath of massive protests against the Dakota Access pipeline near the Standing Rock reservation in North Dakota. Local agencies spent at least $38 million on a militarized response that involved the use of water hoses, tear gas, and other “less than lethal” weapons. As of last summer, North Dakota was still seeking to recover the full expense from the Army Corps of Engineers, which manages much of the land on which resistance camps were located. Pipeline parent company Energy Transfer chipped in $15 million.

The Enbridge escrow account was designed to prevent a similar scenario in Minnesota by providing a means for the company responsible for the project to reimburse law enforcement for “maintaining peace in and around the construction site.” Law enforcement and public safety agencies are also invited to request repayment for traffic control, oversight of private security companies, and public health services related to construction. Some of the money could additionally be used for grants to deal with drug and human trafficking, problems associated with an influx of temporary workers. The Public Utilities Commission permit required Enbridge to deposit an initial $250,000 into the account.

Last October, the commission amended the permit to address “concerns about the type of equipment that might be used to ensure peace and safety in and around the construction and removal sites.” The amendment notes that “the Public Safety Escrow account may not be used to reimburse expenses for equipment, except for personal protective gear for public safety personnel.”

At a meeting last June, Commissioner John Tuma said that the aim of the fund was to reimburse things like overtime. “The state is not going to go around and buy stuff. That was never the intent here,” he said.

Commissioner Katie Sieben, who submitted the amendment, clarified that there should be opportunities for law enforcement to buy protective gear.

Another member of the commission, Matthew Schuerger, said that he supported the amendment but expressed misgivings. “We’re talking about law enforcement regarding folks that, to our knowledge, are going to be gathering peacefully to exercise their First Amendment rights. I am concerned about what we’re supporting and funding,” he said. He later asked how personal protective gear is defined.

“Things like a shield or turtle suit to protect law enforcement personnel in case there is any disturbance,” Sieben replied.

Ultimately, where Enbridge’s money goes will be decided by the escrow account manager, a position that was filled only last week. The new manager, Richard Hart, is a 30-year law enforcement veteran, most recently serving as deputy chief of the Bloomington Police Department for six years before moving to a position as an investigator for the Hennepin County Sheriff’s Office.

Regardless of which items Hart decides Enbridge should pay for, the Beltrami County Sheriff’s Office has bought far more than protective suits and shields.

CS Tear Gas Grenades, Sharpies, and Saws

Of more than $190,000 in expenses that the Beltrami County Sheriff’s Office invoiced to the escrow account, at least $130,000 could be considered equipment, including nearly $20,000 worth of protective suits and shields. But the county also bought Sharpies, cameras, toolboxes, and saws to remove protesters who lock themselves to equipment.

In December 2016, the sheriff’s office purchased batons, shields, flashlight cases, and gas masks, most likely to protect law enforcement from their own tear gas — all described as “personal protective equipment” in an invoice submitted to the Public Utilities Commission in November.

Other invoices describe weapons as “PPE Equipment to use during Civil Disobedience events.” The sheriff’s office used the label on a request for reimbursement for an array of “less than lethal” weapons purchased last summer, when the department spent $1,074.40 on 40 CS tear gas grenades, $551.75 on 25 CS tear gas projectiles, and $1,975 on a launcher — all manufactured by Defense Technology.

Studies indicate that such chemicals can increase individuals’ risk of contracting respiratory illnesses. In an open letter written in the wake of uprisings over George Floyd’s killing by Minneapolis police this past summer, more than 1,000 health professionals recommended that police “oppose any use of tear gas, smoke, or other respiratory irritants, which could increase risk for COVID-19 by making the respiratory tract more susceptible to infection, exacerbating existing inflammation, and inducing coughing.”

Houska said project opponents now hold actions almost daily in below-freezing temperatures along the 337 miles of pipeline in Minnesota as they press the Biden administration to halt construction. “We’re fighting with every last bit of creativity and energy and collective power that we have to try to delay construction,” said Houska. “Our hope lies with the Biden administration and with, more importantly, the people. We’re in a climate crisis where the people need to stand with the earth.”

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