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Native View: We’re taking an ecological beating for pipelines that don’t serve us

The year 1968 was a long time ago. It was glorious. The 1960s. As a 9-year-old, I marveled at bellbottoms, the music and an era that stretched into the ’70s. It’s still about my favorite genre. I think that’s called “old school.” We were at the height of the Vietnam War with 50,000-plus American casualties and countless Vietnamese dead. Lyndon Johnson was president, and it was before Richard Nixon was president and impeached. This was before the Clean Water Act, the National Environmental Policy Act and just after the passage of the U.S. Civil Rights Act.

It was a long time ago.

That’s why it’s odd to me that public-policy decisions from the 1960s are now offered as justification for threats to our land, our water and our most sacred food: our manoomin, or wild rice.

In late September, I sat in a federal courthouse in Minneapolis. The case, White Earth Nation v. Kerry, was heard in front of Judge Michael Davis. In a courtroom filled with tribal members from the North Country, our brave team of three attorneys argued that the U.S. State Department and Enbridge should have to follow federal laws before doubling the capacity of the Alberta Clipper pipeline, now bringing 800,000 barrels of some of the dirtiest oil on Earth across the border and through our territory to the Twin Ports. We think the State Department should comply with the National Environmental Policy Act and the National Historic Preservation Act, just like all other federal agencies.

The U.S. State Department, with about four lawyers, and Enbridge, with two, huddled across the federal courtroom. Their argument was simple: In 1968, President Johnson issued a permit for a cross-border oil pipeline, Line 3, to another oil company, Lakehead, and that presidential permit was sort of a carte blanche or an all-access pass.

The U.S. State Department told the U.S. federal judge he had no jurisdiction. That was a pretty interesting suggestion to me. At some point, I’d like to see that there are “checks and balances” in the executive branch.

Fast forward to Sept. 24. Enbridge  had a spill near Floodwood. Now this was not a tar sands spill; it was something called “hydrostatic testing“ of Line 2, which was built around the same time as Line 3. A lot of water was to be pushed through the old line to see if it could hold the pressure of a lot more oil (“700 barrels of dyed water spilled in Enbridge test failure”).

There were a couple of problems with this. First, the most obvious was that a line built in the 1960s is not necessarily the best idea for tar sands oil. Nearly 30,000 gallons of the water spewed out. How does this happen? Enbridge blamed an equipment malfunction as crews were preparing to test the pipe.

It seemed Enbridge was able to suck water in from the Red River, which, by the way, flows into the Hudson Bay watershed. This test water originally was intended to go to the Nemadji River and into Lake Superior — except it spilled. On Enbridge property, we were told. According to Enbridge, the water was clean of invasive species and all sorts of stuff (not sure what they used to clean it) and then was to be shoved through the pipeline that maybe was cleaned first, and we should not worry about any of this at all.

I think I’ll just go take a drink from that there pipe.

Things are not the same in 2015 as they were in the l960s when these pipelines were built. We have a problem, Houston. Northern Minnesota is taking an ecological beating for some pipelines that don’t serve us.

Winona LaDuke lives on the White Earth Reservation in northern Minnesota. She has written six books on environmental and Native American issues and directs Honor the Earth, a national Native American environmental foundation. She also is a two-time vice-presidential candidate, sharing the Green Party ticket in 1996 and 2000 with Ralph Nader.