Protesters’ ride along pipeline route sheds light on heavy issues
BRAINERD — Environmental activists on horseback passed through the Brainerd lakes area this week with the mission to raise awareness of what they say are the dangers associated with Enbridge’s proposed Sandpiper oil pipeline.
On Monday, more than a dozen riders began their journey in East Lake, near the Rice Lake National Wildlife Management Area in Aitkin County. They are riding as closely as possible to the company’s preferred pipeline route before eventually ending up at the Rice Lake Community Center on the White Earth Reservation after two weeks, where a celebratory powwow will be held.
Organized by Native-led environmental organization Honor the Earth, the “Ride for Mother Earth” is accompanied by the “Love Water Not Oil” tour, featuring educational events on the pipeline led by the organization’s founder, Winona LaDuke, and musical performances. LaDuke spoke at the Northland Arboretum in Brainerd Tuesday night after riding throughout the day and again at Pine River-Backus Schools on Wednesday.
“I like the quality of life we have here. I like my lakes,” she told the crowd of more than 50 people at the Arboretum. “I don’t want to see somebody mess it up. That’s pretty much why I’m here.”
LaDuke, a member of the White Earth Nation best known for running for vice president alongside Ralph Nader in 1996 and 2000, is no stranger to environmental activism from atop a horse. This is the latest in a series of rides along potential oil pipeline routes in which she’s taken part, including a 2013 trek through South Dakota with Lakota riders from the Cheyenne River Reservation along TransCanada’s proposed Keystone XL route.
She said the pipeline rides are inspired by a series of dreams she had about “riding against the current of the oil.”
When she learned of Enbridge’s plans to run a pipeline through northern Minnesota to transport oil from the Bakken oilfields of western North Dakota to Superior, Wis., she began writing editorials and planning for another ride. The route would cut through the northeast corner of the White Earth Reservation. LaDuke said she “resigned from about half of (her) work to focus on this.”
“My strategy was to get a bunch of Norwegians worried,” she told the Brainerd crowd. “It’s not just a problem for Indians, frankly, it’s a problem for all of us.”
Frank Waln, a 25-year-old Lakota from the Rosebud Sioux Tribe in South Dakota, is one of the riders on the current journey. Waln, a musician, said he has actively opposed the Keystone XL pipeline and was honored when LaDuke asked him to participate in the tour.
“A lot of the stuff we talked about in there is really heavy,” he said of LaDuke’s presentation. “But when you’re out there (riding) with the thing we’re trying to protect, it just feels good, it feels right. It recharges you, and you’re like, ‘Yeah, this is beautiful out here, why would we want to destroy this?’”
Waln said he’s never done anything quite like this ride, but that it was important for him to participate to show his generation that they should be involved in protecting the environment.
“No matter your age, this is a human issue,” he said. “All generations need to be represented.”
Although Honor the Earth has supported alternative routes proposed by citizen organization Friends of the Headwaters, LaDuke said the group’s position is “first, we don’t like pipelines at all.”
“We need to look at a moratorium on pipelines in the north,” she said. “This is a very biodiverse region … You don’t put pipelines in this region. It’s also a region where the water table is very close to the surface.”
A map prepared by Friends of the Headwaters superimposes Enbridge’s proposed route over a map of groundwater contamination susceptibility prepared by the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency. According to this map, the route crosses some of the most susceptible groundwater in central Minnesota.
LaDuke’s concerns with the pipeline extend beyond a general opposition to its existence. She said the potential for spills would endanger the region’s wild rice lakes and threatens land guaranteed for use by tribes in an 1855 federal treaty.
Three of the five counties boasting the heaviest concentrations of wild rice lakes, according to the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources — Cass, Crow Wing and Aitkin — would be crossed by the pipeline if Enbridge’s route is approved.
Honor the Earth submitted a memo to the Minnesota Public Utilities Commission, the agency which will ultimately make the decision on the pipeline route, claiming that the state lacks jurisdiction over the lands protected by the federal treaties, which guarantee usufructuary property rights to tribes to hunt, fish and gather.
“It’s not a possession right, it’s a use right,” LaDuke said. “It’s a legal argument we are making, that the PUC does not have the right to grant that.”
The memo aims to make the case that these rights mean the state or Enbridge would have to show that an Act of Congress cancels the terms of the treaty or that Congress has authorized state jurisdiction over federally protected treaty rights.
LaDuke spoke about Honor the Earth’s concerns at an Aug. 7 hearing held by the PUC to consider alternative routes, where the agency made the decision to pursue a study of an alternate route proposed by the MPCA. This route would veer south and follow an existing natural gas pipeline, avoiding the headwaters and lakes regions the MPCA expressed the most concern about.
In a May 30 letter to the Minnesota Department of Commerce, MPCA planner principal Patrice Jensen noted Enbridge’s proposed route included 28 water crossings that would be very difficult or impossible to reach should an oil spill occur.
“The lack of possible access to these areas by people and equipment necessary to clean up spills increases the likelihood that an incident could result in significant long-term environmental damage,” she wrote. “A failure to account for these possibilities is considered to be a substantial flaw with the currently proposed Sandpiper route.”
MPCA’s proposed route reduced the number of these crossings to four.
LaDuke said she is glad the PUC is requiring the route alternative be studied, but that the work of her organization and others is not done. She hopes the horse ride and accompanying tour will bring more exposure and interest people who will be affected by the Sandpiper.
“We still have a really good gig here. We are in a place where we still have water. We still have lakes, we still have a biodiverse ecosystem, and there’s lots of people who don’t have anything like we have,” she said. “We really need people to participate in the PUC process to ask for more hearings. Push your legislators.”