Border patrol helicopter used against Line 3 protesters in northern Minnesota

Officials used rotor downwash in an attempt to clear Line 3 protesters.
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Video posted to social media shows federal officials using a helicopter rotor downwash in an attempt to clear Line 3 protesters from a pump station in northern Minnesota.

People from across the U.S. are in northern Minnesota for the four-day Treaty People Gathering to protest Enbridge Energy's Line 3 oil pipeline replacement project. And on Monday, about 400-500 protesters — who call themselves water protectors — occupied a Line 3 pump station site north of Park Rapids, with at least 24 protesters locked down to construction equipment, MPR News' Dan Kraker tweeted Monday. 

A press release from Giniw Collective says after a weekend of training as part of the Treaty People Gathering, "hundreds" of protesters climbed over fences and created blockades at the pump station near the Mississippi River headwaters off Highway 71, noting some linked arms and others locked to equipment. 

Then around noon, a Customs and Border Protection helicopter flew low to the ground over the area.

The independent news website Unicorn Riot said the helicopter made an "inaudible announcement" before flying "directly over" the protesters, "dusting them."

Video of the helicopter – whose registration N3949A shows it belonging to the U.S. Department of Homeland Security – was released shortly after it caused a downwash of air that sent dirt and dust flying. 

The Northern Lights Task Force, which was formed to address public safety needs along the pipeline, claimed in a statement that the helicopter was merely brought in to "issue a dispersal order" and that the kicking up of dust was "unforeseen to local law enforcement."

But this version of events has received pushback from those at the scene, including journalists reporting on the events at the pumping station.

In a statement to Bring Me The News, U.S. Customs and Border Protection said: 

“U.S. Customs and Border Protection in Grand Forks responded to a local law enforcement request for assistance to address a gathering of people who were reported to have trespassed on private property. CBP’s headquarters is investigating the facts to determine precisely what occurred and whether the actions taken were justified. All appropriate actions will be taken based on the facts that are learned, including with respect to the incident itself as well as the agency’s applicable policies and procedures.”

Downwashes can be dangerous. The wind from the helicopter can cause significant damage to nearby objects and people as it can send debris flying. 

It also has the potential to be in violation of minimum safe altitudes law. 

Bring Me The News has also reached out to the U.S. Department of Homeland Security and the ACLU.

Line 3 protests stepped up

This weekend's Treaty People Gathering was organized by several Indigenous tribes and environmental groups. The four-day event, which began June 5, is being hailed as the largest civil disobedience so far against Line 3, and a kickoff to a summer of resistance against the pipeline. It has featured speeches, media tours and celebrities, including Jane Fonda who also visited the pipeline in March.

It comes after months of smaller protests by tribal members, environmentalists and others in northern Minnesota, which have led to more than 250 people being arrested for things like trespassing. 

But large groups of protesters that have been seen at other pipeline projects in the U.S., like Standing Rock in the Dakotas, have been largely absent from Line 3 due to COVID-19 pandemic and Minnesota's cold winter, MPR News says.

That changed this weekend with the Treaty People Gathering, with the event website saying protesters "put their bodies on the line to stop construction and tell the world that the days of tar sands pipelines are over. Only a major, nonviolent uprising - including direct action - will propel this issue to the top of the nation’s consciousness and force [President Joe] Biden to act." 

Event organizers say their action helped convince Biden to stop the Keystone pipeline project, noting the president could instruct the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to revoke the pipeline's federal Clean Water Act Section 404 Permits, which they say were issued "hastily" at the end of the Trump Administration. Revoking the permits would prevent Enbridge from building the pipeline across navigable waterways, which would halt the project "immediately."

Meanwhile, Native American tribal members and environmental groups have been fighting against the Line 3 project in court, saying the pipeline will usurp Indigenous treaty rights and contribute to climate change, as well as put Minnesota's waterways, including the Mississippi River, at risk for oil spills and leaks, threatening the waters where several Indigenous tribes have treaty rights to hunt, fish and collect wild rice.

Protesters are hopeful that legal appeals in court will go through, "but cannot rely on them, especially as construction is happening right now," the Treaty People Gathering website says.

Canadian-based Enbridge Energy got the approvals it needed last fall to begin construction in December 2020 on a Line 3 replacement pipeline that will carry crude oil from the tar fields in Canada to Superior, Wisconsin, via 337 miles in northern Minnesota. Once the oil pipeline is complete (it's halfway done), it will carry millions of gallons of oil per day.

The project proved a controversial one, dividing those who want the economic boost that such a major construction project would bring – backed by many state Republicans – with those who fear the potential environmental risk of a pipeline cutting through areas of natural beauty and watersheds, including through wetlands and near the headwaters of the Mississippi River.

Enbridge has stressed the pipeline is safe. 

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