As you drive toward the Mississippi River’s headwaters from the east, the lakes that open up on either side of the highway are still white-blue with ice. The Mississippi River, however, is flowing. The open water — a trickle compared to the expanse it will become farther south — is a hopeful sign of the end of another long Minnesota winter, but it also has opponents of pipeline construction in the area on edge.

Enbridge, the Canadian energy-transport firm, is planning to route its Line 3 pipeline under the Mississippi, near where it crosses Highway 40. In winter, a pollution-control rule bars drilling under the frozen waters. As the ice melts away, so do the restrictions. Those organizing against the project worry that Enbridge could begin tunneling under the Mississippi and other local rivers any day — and the pipeline-resistance movement is getting ready for it.

“They got a lot of money, they got a lot of equipment, but we got a lot of people. Spring is coming. Let’s be outdoorsy.”

“They got a lot of money, they got a lot of equipment, but we got a lot of people,” said Anishinaabe water protector Winona LaDuke at an event last week with actor and activist Jane Fonda, which took place in front of the flowing Crow Wing River, not far from where Enbridge seeks to drill under its shores. “Spring is coming. Let’s be outdoorsy.”

Enbridge’s Line 3 project began construction four months ago. It was designed to replace a decaying pipeline of the same name; however, a large portion of its 338-mile Minnesota section, which makes up most of the U.S. route, plows through new land and waters. The project would double Line 3’s capacity for carrying tar sands oil, one of the most carbon-intensive fossil fuels in the world, at a moment when a rapid shift away from fossil fuels has become critical to address the climate crisis.

The delicate waterway ecosystems through which the pipeline passes have become the central organizing point of the anti-pipeline, or water protector, movement. Hundreds of rivers, streams, and wetlands face the specter of a tar sands leak after the replacement Line 3 begins operating. And the particularly intensive form of drilling required to tunnel the pipeline under rivers holds its own set of risks during construction.

Those same waters are central to the Anishinaabe people’s identity, and Anishinaabe women have led opposition to the Line 3 project. Over the past year, women and nonbinary people have organized small camps near planned construction sites. In recent weeks, they’ve led a steady schedule of gatherings and ceremonies at the edges of rivers, with some organizing more obstructive protests, known as direct actions, aimed at slowing pipeline construction. With spring on the horizon, pipeline opponents are poised to take even more obstinate stands to block construction at the river crossings.

Law enforcement agencies, with Enbridge’s support, are also preparing for the time when the rivers open up. Documents obtained by The Intercept confirm that local sheriff’s offices have for months been practicing for direct actions focused on the Mississippi River.

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Winona LaDuke, center, and Tara Houska, left, are seen at a demonstration against the Enbridge Line 3 pipeline in Park Rapids, Minn., on March 15, 2021.

Photo: Courtesy of Honor the Earth

“Operation River Crossing”

This past September, members of the Northern Lights Task Force, a coalition of state and local law enforcement and public safety agencies set up to respond to pipeline resistance, gathered for the 12-hour training at Camp Ripley, a Minnesota National Guard training center on the Mississippi River south of the pipeline route. The exercise was titled “Operation River Crossing.”

In a manual for exercise participants, obtained by The Intercept through a public information request, officials from the Minnesota Department of Public Safety Division of Homeland Security and Emergency Management and the Minnesota State Patrol provide hints about what they fear will happen — and how they intend to respond.

Operation River Crossing was designed for law enforcement trainees from along the pipeline route to practice their response to a “civil unrest situation with threats to public safety including criminal damage to property, obstruction of transportation, assaults, threats to bystanders, and rioting.” Officers would confront a range of people posing as pipeline opponents. Some would be quietly holding signs. “Others are blocking the roadway and access to the work area and refusing orders to disperse. A small group of protesters has started threatening pipeline workers and law enforcement officers and lobbing balloons filled with urine and deer repellent.”

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In the fictionalized scenario, law enforcement officers have access to various headquarters for cross-county coordination. “Two Regional Emergency Operations Centers (EOCs) have already been established: Northwest EOC near Crookston and Northeast EOC near Duluth,” the planning document says. A hypothetical state-level operation center had also been “partially activated” at Camp Ripley.

The manual also explains that fictive officers have been monitoring social media and using it to determine their strategies. “Public safety officials became aware of a spike in social media messaging activity regarding planned protests” at a second Mississippi crossing site in Aitkin County, downstream from the headwaters. “Multiple groups indicate they will travel to the counties along the route to protest the project,” the scenario says. “One of these groups is associated with past criminal activities during protests.”

In response to all these hypothetical details, the police would practice coordinated crowd-control tactics and methods of cutting away materials used to attach pipeline opponents to infrastructure. They would simulate the use of chemical munitions, while observers watched the training on bleachers.

Six months later, law enforcement agencies have put some of the planned exercises into real-world action. As the scenario foreshadowed, a Northeast Emergency Operations Center was activated November 30, shortly after the pipeline’s approval, according to Northern Lights Task Force meeting notes obtained by The Intercept. Multiple county sheriff’s offices now have their own extrication or cutting teams trained and ready to use equipment for cutting water protectors away from infrastructure. Some of that equipment has been paid for by Enbridge itself.

An escrow account set up by the Minnesota Public Utilities Commission and funded by Enbridge, primarily to cover the costs of policing pipeline resistance, has distributed more than $500,000 to law enforcement agencies as of March 15. The account is not meant to be used for equipment, though, unless it’s personal protective equipment. The state-appointed account manager has rejected law enforcement requests for reimbursement of cutting tools. But there are ways around that. In Hubbard County, for example, Enbridge donated cutting tools separately from the escrow account.

The escrow account manager also rejected requests that had framed chemical munitions as “personal protective equipment.” Whether or not they’ve been reimbursed, law enforcement agencies have new stock available. No use of chemical munitions has been reported so far. Instead, water protectors say that they have seen increased traffic stops, aerial surveillance, and police officers following pipeline opponents in cars.

In an interview with The Intercept, Aitkin County Sheriff Dan Guida denied there has been an escalation of law enforcement’s response to water protectors in his jurisdiction. He spoke as he monitored his county’s extrication team, which was attempting to remove seven people that had attached themselves to an Enbridge Line 3 pipeline pump station. He said his county is not deploying aerial surveillance, that any traffic stops were a response to traffic laws being broken, and that he is committed to protecting the safety and First Amendment rights of water protectors, as well as the property rights of the pipeline company.

“When there is illegal activity around — it doesn’t matter what movement you’re involved in — we focus energy on it. That’s our job,” said Guida. A spokesperson for the Northern Lights Task Force did not answer a list of questions sent by The Intercept. Guida, who previously served in a leadership position for the task force, confirmed that his county participated in the Operation River Crossing training.

Nonetheless, tension between law enforcement agencies and water protectors is simmering, and the planned river crossings threaten to serve as a tipping point toward more aggressive policing.

Any Day Now

Enbridge has suggested that no river crossing is imminent. Last week, the company announced that Line 3 is now half complete and that the project will go on a “planned” two-month hiatus. Enbridge spokesperson Juli Kellner confirmed to The Intercept that river drilling will occur in the summer. Many opponents are hopeful that it will be enough time for President Joe Biden to intervene and stop the project, the way he stopped the Keystone XL tar sands pipeline. There are also ongoing legal cases to stop Line 3, including from the White Earth and Red Lake tribal governments, whose treaty land the pipeline passes through.

Project opponents, though, remain on edge, wary of the possibility that any day they could receive word that drilling at one of 21 river and waterway crossings has begun. Darin Broton, communications director for the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency, told The Intercept that no rules prevent Enbridge from installing their pipeline under rivers where the ice has melted: “They are able to drill under those waters. The only condition was prior approval when waters were frozen.”

In November, the pipeline company commenced construction so swiftly that it caught local sheriff’s departments off guard, according to notes obtained by The Intercept from another Northern Lights Task Force meeting. “Enbridge has advised they intend to begin construction as soon as November 27 (much earlier than anticipated and without a 45 day notice as expected),” the document says. “We are approximately three to four weeks from all initiatives being fully operational but we are prepared to make it work in the interim.”

“If they bring that drill pad to that river, I’m there. If that means I’m standing in the water, I’m there.”

Much of the remaining drilling work involves a process called horizontal directional drilling, in which pipeline is threaded through a tunnel bored below the riverbed. The slurry of water and clay used as a drill lubricant can leak into waterways, clouding aquatic habitats or drinking water.

People’s greatest fears, however, center around what could happen once the workers leave the construction site: a spill. The largest inland oil spill in U.S. history happened in 1991 in nearby Grand Rapids, Minnesota; 1.7 million gallons of crude oil spilled from Line 3, the same pipeline that Enbridge is now replacing. In 2010, a Michigan community suffered a huge spill from another Enbridge pipeline.

Last Tuesday, as Clearwater County Sheriff Darin Halverson looked on, Anishinaabe women from nearby communities led a group in a ceremony, and men sang and drummed. As three giant puppets — a wolf, a bear, and a woman in a jingle dress — moved toward a wide bare gap in the trees — the pipeline easement — a figure in the dark truck parked in the easement driveway filmed the group with a phone.

Sarah LittleRedFeather, who is Anishinaabe and whose family is from White Earth, said she was undaunted by the resources being poured into law enforcement efforts against pipeline opponents: “It’s not going to stop us.”

“If they bring that drill pad to that river, I’m there. If that means I’m standing in the water, I’m there,” said LittleRedFeather, who works with the nonprofit Honor the Earth. “That’s what I’m waiting for. We’re praying that it won’t get to that point.”