A dozen members of the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency's (MPCA) Environmental Justice Advisory Group (EJAG) have resigned after the agency approved a water permit for the controversial Enbridge Energy Line 3 pipeline replacement project.
Twelve members of the 17-member EJAG resigned in a strongly worded letter criticizing the MPCA, which was made public Tuesday. The EJAG was formed in 2016 to, among other things, advise the MPCA Commissioner on the implementation of the agency's environmental justice framework.
That's according to the EJAG webpage, which was deleted from the MPCA's website on Tuesday.
The letter, dated Nov. 16, says the group members – which includes activist Winona LaDuke and other Native leaders – are submitting their "collective and public resignation" because "we cannot continue to legitimize and provide cover for the MPCA's war on black and brown people."
The resignation comes days after the MPCA on Nov. 12 issued a 401 water quality certification to Enbridge Energy for the project and approved the capped air emissions and National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System wastewater (NPDES) permit for Line 3.
“The MPCA has used sound science and thorough analysis to ensure that necessary safeguards are in place to protect Minnesota’s waters. The 401 certification requires Enbridge to meet Minnesota’s extensive water quality standards instead of lower federal standards,” MPCA Commissioner Laura Bishop said in a statement. “Thousands of Minnesotans provided valuable comments that strengthened the 401 certification and the rigorous review during the contested case hearing validated the proposed stream and wetland crossing safeguards. The result is a certification and permits that are strong, enforceable, and protective.”
These permits are among the few approvals Enbridge Energy still needs before it can start construction on the pipeline replacement, which will replace an aging crude oil pipeline in northern Minnesota with a larger pipeline along a different route that will connect the tar fields in Canada to Superior, Wisconsin, via northern Minnesota.
This project has been controversial from the start. Proponents have said the pipeline will create jobs, while opponents, including Native American tribal members and environmental groups, have been fighting against the project in court, saying the pipeline will usurp Indigenous treaty rights and contribute to climate change.
Similar sentiments are echoed in the EJAG members' resignation letter. They write the pipeline will cross over 200 bodies of water "inevitably poisoning rivers, wetlands, and wild rice beds" and emit greenhouse gases that cannot be offset even if every other sector of the state gets to carbon neutral. The letter also says the pipeline threatens the further spread of COVID-19 at a time when cases and hospitalizations are surging.
"Line 3 will mean violated treaty rights, heightened risk of sexual trafficking and sexual violence, and an insult to three tribal nations that strongly oppose construction," the letter reads. "Any perceived economic benefits are extremely short-term ... it is obvious that Line 3 is a poor economic choice for Minnesota's working and middle classes," pointing to Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer's recent action to shut down Enbridge's Line 5 pipeline.
The letter states that the approval of the water permit "sends a clear message that the Walz Administration and the MPCA hold no regard for the well-being of Minnesotans or our relatives around the world." They called the approval the "final straw after increasing disappointment in the MPCA's failure to build on the hard work of dedicated EJAG members over the years."
The resigning members say the transition to MPCA Commissioner Laura Bishop has resulted in the EJAG being left out of important decisions and members being been dismissed and discouraged from sharing their thoughts and opinions.
"While we have seen small actions taken internally to improve understanding, measures, and culture in the agency, our communities demand action and this agency cannot claim to promote justice without results that improve our lives," the letter states.
The group "demands" that Commissioner Bishop and the Walz Administration "reflect on the choices that were made," adding that their decision to "side with a Canadian corporation over your own people is reprehensible and devastating."
"We ask that you do everything in your power to repair the damage you have done and seek a healing path to justice with the communities you have harmed," the letter says.
In a series of tweets Tuesday afternoon, MPCA Commissioner Bishop said:
"The MPCA thanks the environmental justice advisory group (EJAG) members for their steadfast commitment to ensuring that every voice and community is heard and engaged. I recognize the disappointment of some members regarding the Line 3 decision.
"The MPCA EJAG has made a significant difference in the way that the agency approaches its work, including integrating equity into agency grantmaking decisions, strengthening engagement during enforcement and permitting processes, and prioritizing permits in EJ communities.
"The MPCA will continue to eliminate and reverse environmental and health inequities and disparities in overburdened communities and ensure engagement remains at the forefront of our decision-making.
"The MPCA remains committed to ensuring that every Minnesotan has healthy air, sustainable lands, clean water and a better climate."
Bring Me The News has reached out to Gov. Tim Walz for comment on these resignations.
A years-long process
The permits the MPCA issued last week, along with the ones the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources approved the same day, bring the Line 3 project even closer to construction.
The MPCA's recent approvals will trigger a decision from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers on its permit for the project, MPR News reported. That approval, as well as one more from the MPCA which is expected in the next month, is all Enbridge needs to begin building the pipeline.
This comes following a years-long approval process that's been delayed by appeals and lawsuits. The state has approved this project twice – in 2018 and most recently in May, when the Minnesota Public Utilities Commission (PUC) approved the route and a certificate of need for the project.
However, the Minnesota Department of Commerce in August filed an appeal against the PUC approval, claiming the approval didn’t take into consideration a possible drop in oil demand as the COVID-19 pandemic continues. This marked the third time the Commerce Department has appealed the pipeline since the approval process began in 2015, and it ended up costing the department's commissioner his job.
Enbridge officials have said they hope to begin construction before the end of 2020, according to MPR News, noting it'll take 6-9 months to build.