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A previously undisclosed aquifer breach caused by Enbridge during Line 3 pipeline work sent more than 200 million gallons of groundwater spilling toward Fond du Lac lands, possibly threatening an important wild rice site.

It's one of two newly revealed Line 3 aquifer breaches detailed by the DNR Monday afternoon, bringing the total number of such confirmed incidents to three. Together, the latest breaches indicate Enbridge's pipeline work was more damaging than either the DNR or Enbridge had previously publicly acknowledged.

The controversial tar sands pipeline faced fierce opposition from environmental advocates and Native American groups. They had argued damage caused during construction work or from a future oil spill could threaten valuable natural wetlands — including those that sustain wild rice, a native grain described as "a centerpiece of Anishinaabe culture."

Here's what we've learned.

The breach near Fond du Lac Reservation

The breach near the Fond du Lac Reservation was first discovered around Sept. 10, 2021, the DNR said, on county-owned land about 12 miles southeast of Floodwood and 400 feet west of the reservation's border. 

The DNR said groundwater began upwelling as Enbridge removed sheet piling that had been used during pipeline construction work. The breach, caused by sheet piling piercing the aquifer, led to "uncontrolled" and "high pressure" groundwater flow from the site.

So far, about 219.6 million gallons of groundwater have gushed from the site, at one point at a rate of 330 gallons per minute. This escaped water flowed into what the DNR describes as a "wet forest complex" that slants eastward toward Fond du Lac lands. 

The band, in an update, says it wasn't immediately alerted to the breach because it happened outside of its borders — even though the water was flowing into the reservation. There are concerns the leak could damage Deadfish Lake, which is a key wild rice water for the band.

The uncontrolled flow could also violate the band's own water quality standards (which it says are more stringent than Minnesota state laws).

Months later, groundwater continues to seep from the breach, though remediation work (which involves plugging the 400-foot-long, 30-foot-wide puncture wound with a cement-based grout, the band says) has dropped it down to about 6 gallons per minute, according to the DNR. A permanent fix is "challenging," the agency added, because groundwater movement in the area is "particularly complex."

The Fond du Lac Band calls it a "complicated, multi-jurisdictional challenge," as it involves it and the DNR, the Army Corps of Engineers, St. Louis and Carlton Counties, and Minnesota's health and pollution agencies.

The band and all relevant agencies approved the corrective plan on Feb. 16, with Fond du Lac leaders saying they're "hopeful" any impact to the wild rice resources will be "minimal." Bu they'll know more this spring, when more monitoring and assessment work can be done.

"The Band is currently assessing all options to ensure that Enbridge mitigates and repairs damages arising from the breach," Fond du Lac's update adds.

Hubbard County breach

The other newly revealed breach occurred around Aug. 2, 2021, during Line 3 construction near LaSalle Creek, according to the DNR. 

Sheet piling was again the culprit, with the DNR saying approximately 9.8 million gallons of groundwater escaped from the site from that time through Dec. 20 — when Enbridge said it managed to plug the breach.

Independent environmental monitors confirmed this, the DNR said, but the agency will continue to monitor the site after the spring thaw.

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Penalties for Enbridge are coming

The St. Louis and Hubbard County breaches, combined with the previously disclosed aquifer breach near Clearbrook Terminal from early 2021, together spilled more than 286 million gallons of groundwater.

A final penalty for Enbridge (referred to as a "comprehensive enforcement resolution") is still being hammered, the DNR said, noting the goal is to address restoration, mitigation and other violations connected to the three groundwater aquifer breaches. 

The agency is declining to say more until a final agreement is reached, though said its Monday update represents the "results of the investigation" into the breaches.

So far, the DNR ordered Enbridge (in October of 2021) to pay $3.32 million for the initial problems near Clearbrook Terminal. Enbridge managed to stop the leak there in early 2022 — but nearly three months after missing its first deadline to do so. During that time, an additional 32.6 million gallons of groundwater were lost.

The DNR has previously vowed to hold the Canadian oil company accountable for any and all violations, including those discovered after the initial enforcement order. 

The new Line 3 pipeline, meant to replace older pipeline infrastructure, began operating last October. It will carry millions of gallons of crude oil daily from the tar fields in Canada to Superior, Wisconsin.

Enbridge's response

Enbridge, in a statement provided to Bring Me The News, said it "takes protecting the environment seriously," adding: " ... we regret this happened, and are taking steps to improve our procedures to prevent this type of occurrence in the future."

The company also said work at the still-flowing St. Louis County breach site is "nearing completion," and alleged most of the water was "returned to the immediate environment."

"We are dedicated to resolving these matters quickly and thoroughly as we continue to work with the regulatory agencies on ongoing restoration and monitoring," the company said.

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