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Richard Smith: Up here, a barrel of water is worth more than a barrel of oil

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opinion Bemidji,Minnesota 56619
Richard Smith: Up here, a barrel of water is worth more than a barrel of oil
Bemidji Minnesota P.O. Box 455 56619

It’s time to ask ourselves if we are becoming the River of Oil.

Minnesota is proudly famous as the source of the Mississippi River. Every second about 45 gallons begin their journey from Itasca State Park. That’s 3,882,298 gallons per day.


A few miles downstream from Itasca a 30-inch diameter pipeline, named Sandpiper, will be bored under the river. Enbridge and the North Dakota Pipeline Company (NDPC) will pump 375,000 barrels of oil through it every day. At 42 gallons per barrel, that’s 15.75 million gallons of oil. More than four times the gallons of water in the river the same day. If the pipe ruptures, how much oil is in the river before the spill is detected and stopped?

In 2010 Enbridge spilled 850,000 gallons of oil into the Kalamazoo River watershed in Michigan. That oil ended up 35 miles down river before it was stopped. From the proposed pipeline crossing on the MIssissippi to Bemidji is around 30 miles, 30 miles of some of the last wild stretches on the river. In 1976 it was considered for National Wild and Scenic River designation.

It still retains some of that character, but for how much longer? There are four pipes under the river near the park. Enbridge wants two more, the Sandpiper and the Line 3 rebuild. The Sandpiper volume will be nearly 16 million gallons per day. How much more will be in the larger 36-inch Line 3? How much is already there? How much is too much?

This oil will pass through some of the finest lake country in the USA. Minnesota isn’t the “Land of 10,000 Lakes” for nothing. It’s time we start asking why these companies can plow pipelines through our 10,000 lakes with so little environmental review. Each new pipeline adds to the cumulative risks to our waters, fish, game, wild rice and communities.

If permitted, NDPC will construct the Sandpiper without a full EIS (environmental impact statement), without any worst-case scenarios for spill damages and costs to our resources and people. In 2005 our legislators with help from their “Big Oil” friends, passed a law that allowed the oil companies to bypass our state environmental regulatory agencies and only conduct a CEA (comparative environmental analysis), an analysis without any risk assessments. Who chooses the company to perform the CEA? It’s not the agencies responsible for protecting our natural resources, the DNR and PCA. No, it’s the Department of Commerce, the agency tasked with promoting and protecting business, not our natural resources.

It’s time we demand the right answers on the potential impact of this river of oil to our lands, waters, wildlife and people. Those answers come from a full EIS, not a CEA. The Mississippi River, our lakes and streams, wetlands and aquifers, wildlife and our communities are at great risk from these accumulating pipelines because no matter what Enbridge tells us, they will leak. Ask the folks in Grand Rapids, Cohasset and Pinewood.

Ask the EPA. It had to force Enbridge to stay on the cleanup of the Kalamazoo River spill. They are still there four years later.

The EPA’s EIS for a proposed mine near Bristol Bay, Alaska, concluded in each of their three risk scenarios, there would be a greater than 99.9 percent chance at least one of the three pipelines would fail during the project lifetime. Based on that data the EPA denied a permit because insuring the spawning waters for 50 percent of the wild caught salmon Americans consume was more important than the damage the mine would cause.

Do you think a Department of Commerce/NDPC comparative environmental analysis will give our walleye fishery the same rigorous evaluation?

Fishing, hunting and wildlife watching generate $4.3 billion in annual retail sales in Minnesota.

Weigh that number against the $25 million in taxes Enbridge claims Sandpiper will pay per year.

It’s time to move the river of oil out of Minnesota’s lake country. Our waters are precious. Up here a barrel of water is worth more than a barrel of oil.

Richard Smith is a member of Friends of the Headwaters, a citizens group committed to protecting the Mississippi Headwaters, the lakes, wetlands, rivers and aquifers of northern Minnesota.