PALISADE, Minn. (AP) - The air smelled like sage. Fat snowflakes fell among maple and birch trees. And pipeline opponents clutched pinches of tobacco to throw with their prayers into the frozen Mississippi River.
“We’re all made of water,” said Tania Aubid, a member of the Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe. “Don’t take water for granted.”
Aubid is a water protector, a resident opponent to the Enbridge Energy Line 3 oil pipeline currently under construction in northern Minnesota. Since November, Aubid has lived at a camp along the pipeline’s route north of Palisade.
The camp in Aitkin County is called the Water Protector Welcome Center. It’s home to a core group of pipeline opponents and a gathering place for others, including 75 students, faculty and their families who visited the site last month.
They held a prayer ceremony along the Mississippi River and talked about what they believe is at stake with the Line 3 replacement project: Minnesota’s fresh water and land, specifically Anishinaabe treaty territory.
“These are my homelands in the 1855 treaty territory,” Aubid said. The camp rests on 80 acres of land owned by a Native American land trust. It abuts the pipeline route.
Aubid spent nine months on the Standing Rock Reservation in North Dakota to demonstrate against the Dakota Access Pipeline where protestors were sprayed with pepper spray, water cannons and some attacked by dogs.
Demonstrators have taken action to disrupt the construction. Three people recently blocked Enbridge worksites in Savanna State Forest, according to a press release on behalf of the water protector group. Eight were arrested in early January near Hill City. In December activists camped out in trees along the route.
“Our first priority is the safety of all involved - our workers, men and women in law enforcement and the protestors themselves,” wrote Enbridge spokesperson Juli Kellner in an email to the St. Cloud Times. “As a company, we recognize the rights of individuals and groups to express their views legally and peacefully. We don’t tolerate illegal activities of any kind including trespassing, vandalism or other mischief, and Enbridge will seek to prosecute those individuals to the fullest extent of the law.”
Kellner said work to drill and extend the pipeline under the Mississippi will not take place until later in the year, likely in the summer.
Construction began in December and is about 35% complete. The pipeline will carry crude oil from Canada across a small sliver of North Dakota, through Minnesota and into northwestern Wisconsin.
It’s a replacement line on a new route - south and west of existing lines. That’s one of the reasons for the fierce opposition. Opponents don’t want new infrastructure for fossil fuels, because of its impact on climate change. And the indigenous women behind the water protectors’ efforts have highlighted concerns about degradation of the water, which is important for wild rice harvests.
Supporters of the pipeline see it as an improvement to the aging Line 3 pipe, a job creator and an economic boon that is especially welcome with the economy depressed due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Enbridge made a video with Butch De La Hunt, president and CEO of the Park Rapids Lakes Area Chamber, describing the economic impact of Line 3 construction as a “lifeline” in a tough winter. The hospitality industry, specifically resorts, served people working on the pipeline. And the pipeline generates tax income for the community.
“As of December 2020, Enbridge has spent $180 million dollars with tribal nations, communities and contractors - and the Line 3 project has just started,” Kellner wrote. More than 4,400 union members are working on Line 3. The contractor provides half the workforce and local unions the other half.
Shanai Matteson, an artist and cultural organizer, moved to the water protector camp in the summer. She is familiar with the economic challenges in that part of the state.
“I grew up here in Aitkin County. My family was very poor. We struggled in part, because the economy here isn’t sustaining people,” Matteson said.
Shanai Matteson poses for a photo at the Water Protector camp north of Palisade, Minnesota, where she lives with other opponents of the Enbridge Energy Line 3 oil pipeline. The pipeline is planned to cross under the Mississippi River near the camp, also called a welcome center.
“I think that the way out of that is not to continue an economy that depends upon extraction but to imagine and create the next economy, which is one that is much more rooted and reciprocal,” she said. “Our leaders are lying to us when they tell us that it’s not possible for things to be different, when they say we have to have these jobs, because that’s what we’ve done.”
Matteson and Aubid were both conducting a hunger strike. Aubid prays through it for fresh water for Anishinaabe people and for all people, she said.
They took students to see the Line 3 route that has been cleared of trees. The students gestured “stop” in the direction of the pipeline. Students and security personnel took photos of each other.
The water protectors have been respectful with law enforcement, said a spokesman for the Northern Lights Task Force, a coalition of many county sheriff’s and the Fond Du Lac Reservation that formed as the Line 3 plan took shape. St. Cloud Times requested an interview and received an email response to questions.
Aitkin County Sheriff Dan Guida, a member of the task force, has often visited with pipeline opponents.
”(Guida) has worked diligently to ensure people are treated right and not obstructed from engaging in their First Amendment rights,” said the task force spokesman by email. “We support people’s First Amendment rights to protest peacefully and have taken steps to provide a safe place for them to do so.”
Pipeline opponents want more than protest spaces along the route. They want the project halted. They have asked President Joe Biden to intervene has he did blocking the permit for the Keystone XL pipeline.
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Minnesota Pollution Control Agency and Public Utilities Commission granted permits to Enbridge for Line 3. A lawsuit seeks to overturn an Army Corps’ permit. In an early February decision, the Minnesota Court of Appeals ruled against opponents and allowed construction of the line to continue.
Matteson reminded students visiting the camp that Twin Cities water runs from northern Minnesota.
“I hope you all will be here again,” she said.
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