A number of Minnesota Indian bands are not happy with what they claim is a lack of consultation over the controversial Enbridge oil pipeline across northern Minnesota.
While the route preferred by the Canadian pipeline doesn’t cross any Indian reservations, it does cross a large area of ceded territories where treaties gave tribes the right to gather rice and other wild edibles, fish and hunt in perpetuity.
Enbridge already hosted a three-hour meeting on the Fond du Lac Reservation last Thursday, May 28, a listening session the pipeline company organized at Black Bear Casino to discuss water safety and wild rice preservation. In addition to Fond du Lac, the company invited representatives from Leech Lake, White Earth and other tribes.
The pipeline issue is one that Fond du Lac is paying close attention to. Fond du Lac Chairwoman Karen Diver sent a letter to the executive secretary of the Minnesota Public Utilities Commission last fall regarding the proposed route for the Sandpiper line.
In her letter, Diver noted that the Band is responsible for protecting natural resources both on the reservation and in its ceded territories, and expressed concerns about the need “to protect Band self-sufficiency and cultural practices, such as harvesting wild rice within in the Big Sandy Lake and Kettle River watersheds” and with the lack of tribal consultation on the environmental review process and identifying culturally significant lands.
“The Alberta Clipper and Southern Lights projects have already impacted the Fond du Lac wetlands along the Enbridge pipeline corridor,” she wrote, talking about pipeline impacts on wetlands. “A Geographical Information Systems (GIS) analysis reveals up to 40 newly developed intermittent streams since the pipelines were installed.”
Other reservations are organizing their own pipeline meetings. The Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe plans its own public hearing next Friday on the proposed Sandpiper crude oil pipeline - the same day the state will decide whether to allow construction of the proposed project, which Enbridge Energy plans to use in order to transport oil more than 600 miles from wells in the Bakken region to refineries in Superior, Wis.
Mille Lacs Band Chief Executive Melanie Benjamin sent a letter dated May 27 imploring the Minnesota Public Utilities Commission to postpone deliberations scheduled for June 5.
"I again urge you to postpone the PUC vote on this matter until such time as the PUC Members have an opportunity to consider the views of the Native Americans who will be most impacted by potential spills," she wrote.
Susan Klapel, the tribe's commissioner of natural resources, said Thursday although the line is not planned to run through the reservation itself, a spill could still drastically affect the Rice Lake or Big Sandy Lake watersheds from which Mille Lacs draws water, including the reservation's wild rice beds.
"How important is rice or wheat to the rest of the United States?" she said. "We put wild rice right up there in that category. It's one of the reasons why we're here."
Benjamin said the consultation between state agencies and Indian tribes required by an executive order Gov. Mark Dayton issued in 2013 never occurred with the Mille Lacs Band in the case of the Sandpiper pipeline.
"There has been no consultation between the Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe (as well as other impacted tribes) and the PUC, nor has Enbridge consulted with the Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe," Benjamin said.
Copies of the letter were also sent to Gov. Mark Dayton, U.S. Sens. Amy Klobuchar and Al Franken, and U.S. Rep. Rick Nolan.
Benjamin's letter noted that none of the public hearings on Sandpiper took place on Indian reservations, "despite tribal requests that at least one hearing be located on an Indian reservation to afford tribal members an opportunity to engage in the hearing process."
PUC executive secretary Dan Wolf said last week it wasn't up to the PUC itself to determine the location of the hearings - rather, that decision fell to Administrative Law Judge Eric Lipman, the former Republican state legislator who presided over Sandpiper hearings earlier this year as a member of the state Office of Administrative Hearings. Lipman used testimony and evidence presented during the hearings to compile a report to the PUC. In April, Lipman recommended the PUC grant a certificate of need for the overall Sandpiper project.
There was opportunity for public comment beyond the hearings themselves, including submitting written comments.
In addition, Wolf said, there's a possibility hearings could be held on a reservation during the next permitting phase: approving a specific route for Sandpaper. The hearings would be held somewhere within counties on the proposed pipeline route, he said, and the PUC can request the hearings be held in a particular place. A new administrative law judge would oversee the route permit hearing process, Wolf said.
Contacted Thursday, Lipman declined to comment on the record, saying it would be against OAH policy.
The Mille Lacs hearing on Sandpiper is scheduled for 10 a.m. June 5 at the East Lake Community Center, south of McGregor, Minn. A hearing in White Earth is scheduled for 5 p.m. today (Thursday, June 4).
Reservation leaders have asked the commission to delay its decision until they submit reports from their hearings.