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Winona LaDuke, Published November 27 2013

Letter: Why should I trust an oil firm with my water?

“This is land that has been in my family for decades. It is prime Red River Valley agriculture land. It was handed down to me by my mother and father when they passed away, and I’m intending to hand it down to my children when I pass away … My wife and I have … told our children that we will pass this on. Of course, if 225,000 barrels of oil bursts through this thing, that certainly is the end of this family legacy.”

– James Botsford, North Dakota landowner

The Enbridge Pipelines (ND) LLC asked James Botsford if they could survey his land. “I told Enbridge, ‘I am not going to give you permission,’ ” Botsford said. “You are going to have to take it.” So, Enbridge filed a restraining order against Botsford, “denying me the private use of my own land.”

Enbridge told Botsford that the company’s rights trumped his rights. And in the legal motions argued: “Unless defendant is restrained and enjoined from preventing or interfering with access to the property … Enbridge will be irreparably harmed.”

Really now.

Enbridge seems pretty comfortable with that position, particularly since the Canadian corporation became a North Dakota corporation, which qualifies, apparently, as a utility. This allows the Canadian corporation to have eminent domain rights within the state. That metamorphosis occurred in 2001, and has served Enbridge well.

So, this is part of what I’m wondering: How did the rights of a Canadian corporation so easily trump the rights of a private landowner? And that’s just for surveying. And how did that corporation get to be a North Dakota utility? It seems to be a bit of a stretch of my imagination.

Enbridge’s Sandpiper line is intended to move fracked oil from western North Dakota to the refinery in Superior, Wis. To do that, they’re going to need a “certificate of need,” based on some absolute need for this pipeline, at the Minnesota Public Utilities Commission and at least 2,900 rights of way. They may have a few challenges, and maybe we should ask a few questions.

Spills and enter the pig

“… Farmer Steven Jensen said the smell of sweet light crude oil wafted on his (rural Tioga) farm for four days before he discovered the leak, leading to questions about why the spill wasn’t detected sooner.” – Reuters News Service on the 865,000-gallon spill in October.

That’s what’s supposed to go through this pipeline – it’s full of unknown compounds, highly volatile (Lac Mégantic), and monitoring it is on the honor system. Enbridge’s pipelines are largely monitored by the company. That is, if you don’t count the scant 135 federal Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration inspectors who are responsible for

2.5 million miles of pipeline. They were, incidentally, on furlough when the Tioga spill happened, but it didn’t matter because remediation was Tesoro’s job. Now I don’t want to be a worrywart, but here’s where we are: There’s a piece of equipment called a “pig,” which goes through the lines to check for structural problems.

Sort of like a pipeline colonoscopy. This pig hasn’t worked out too well, though, it seems.

According to Enbridge’s company data, “between 1999 and 2010, across all of the company’s operations, there were 804 oil spills that released 161,475 barrels (approximately 6.8 million gallons) of hydrocarbons into the environment. This amounts to approximately half of the oil that spilled from the oil tanker Exxon Valdez after it struck a rock in Prince William Sound, Alaska, in 1988. The single largest pipeline oil spill in U.S. history was the Kalamazoo, Mich., spill, which was an Enbridge line.”

According to testimony by Michigan lawmakers reported by UPI, “Federal regulators are investigating the 2010 rupture of Line 6B, part of the Enbridge-operated Lakehead pipeline system. The National Transportation Safety Board found Enbridge knew of a defect on the pipeline five years before it burst open and spilled around 20,000 barrels of oil into southern Michigan waters.” So maybe the pig was mute. I don’t know.

“This line – the Sandpiper line – the plan is that it will be operated from the control center in Estevan, Sask., northwest of Minot (N.D.) across the Canadian border,” Greg Sheline of Enbridge explained to me, at a Park Rapids informational hearing. That seems a bit worrisome, too.

Enbridge does not always get what it wants. In June 2013, the government of British Columbia denied Enbridge permits for the Gateway pipeline, citing environmental, safety and economic concerns about the corporation. I don’t know if Enbridge is contending this has caused “irreparable harm.” We will see.

“Our lakes and wild rice beds will be here forever, but if there’s an oil spill, they will be destroyed, and Enbridge will not be here,” said White Earth tribal member Michael Dahl. “They are a 50-year-old Canadian corporation, and we are a people who have lived here for 10,000 years.”

So, that’s what I’m wondering: Why should I trust a 50-year-old Canadian corporation with my water? James Botsford is wondering the same; so, it turns out, are a growing number of landowners.

LaDuke, a member of the White Earth Band of Ojibwe, heads Native Harvest and the White Earth Land Recovery Project.