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Environmental groups question federal order on Enbridge pipeline in Minnesota

Enbridge oil pipeline markers dot the land near Leonard, Minn., on Red Lake Reservation land. The Red Lake Nation and Enbridge recently agreed to terms on a financial settlement and land swap.

MINNEAPOLIS — Representatives of local environmental groups remain skeptical at the inclusion of Minnesota oil pipelines in a $172 million settlement reached last week by pipeline company Enbridge and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency for 2010 oil spills in Michigan and Illinois.

The U.S. Department of Justice settlement, which is currently undergoing a 30-day comment period and is subject to change, is the result of litigation for a July 2010 spill that released more than 1 million gallons of oil from the aging Line 6B into the Kalamazoo River near Marshall, Mich.

Enbridge is ordered to pay $62 million in penalties for the incident and another, smaller spill in Romeoville, Ill., about the same time. The remaining $110 million from the settlement is to go toward additional preventative safety measures on Enbridge pipelines.

The settlement itself was blasted by environmental groups locally and nationally.

“A $62 million penalty and promises to maintain pipelines as a penalty for the worst inland oil disaster in U.S. history is woefully insufficient," Collin O'Mara, president of the National Wildlife Federation, told Reuters last week.

“It’s like if I wanted to get ice cream, and somebody came to me and said ‘Hey, you have to go spend $5 on ice cream,’” said Andy Pearson, Midwest Tar Sands Coordinator for MN350, an environmental group that has staged numerous protests against the extraction of oil from the Alberta oil fields that was spilled from Line 6B. “I already wanted to spend that money on ice cream. It’s not a punishment.”

Specifically mentioned in the settlement was Line 3, which also originates in Alberta and runs across North Dakota and Minnesota to its terminus in Superior, Wis.

The inclusion of Line 3, which is currently under environmental review to be replaced, has left local opposition groups baffled.

“It made me curious on why it would even be a part of this settlement,” said Richard Smith, president of northern Minnesota’s Friends of the Headwaters group. “We’re talking the Kalamazoo spill, the worst inland oil spill in the history of the U.S. … but Line 3 is nowhere near Michigan.”

The settlement indicates Line 3 needs to be replaced, and the wording of the settlement has those opposed to the project concerned the federal justice department is circumventing state control of pipeline regulation.

“I just don’t think (the settlement) will pass muster,” Pearson said. “The wording of the (settlement) is so explicit that I don’t think there is any other way to interpret it other than taking it out of the hands of the state. But that is something the federal government is very explicitly not authorized to do.”

The need for replacing Line 3 is clear, Enbridge project manager Barry Simonson said, and its inclusion in the Line 6B settlement underscores that.

“We as a company have been very forthright and transparent on the fact that Line 3 is in need of being replaced based on integrity and maintenance,” he said. “(Line 3) has the same vintage materials as Line 6B: the same types of coating, the same steel. The federal government and the EPA agrees with Enbridge that this pipeline needs to be replaced expeditiously.”

Line 6B was replaced by Enbridge in 2014.

If Line 3 is not out of service and replaced by the end of December 2017, the settlement also requires annual in-line inspections. Simonson said in-line inspections -- tools that travel through the pipeline to detect denting, cracks and other corrosion -- are currently done on Line 3 about once every three years.

“It’s very unlikely that the pipeline and the other associated infrastructure would be in place and complete by the end of December 2017,” Simonson said.

Enbridge initially projected the Line 3 replacement pipeline to be in service starting in 2017, but regulatory delays have pushed back that timeline to early 2019.

Simonson said the company continues to support the completion of a full environmental impact statement before the approval of the project, but “we also understand the statutory timeframes are for approving a large energy infrastructure project such as this, which is 9-12 months. If we look at the time frame for permit approvals or denials, our application was deemed complete in the summer of 2015.

“We hope it does instill a new sense of urgency at all levels of the (Minnesota) government, from the governor’s office down to the appropriate agencies underneath the governor and his staff.”

Smith also reiterated the expectations of the EIS, which was ordered by the Public Utilities Commission to be completed by the Minnesota Department of Commerce.

“We expect the PUC and the assigned government agencies to execute a competent and complete EIS and not to be pressured by this settlement,” he said.