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Enbridge fails to meet aquifer cleanup deadline

·3 min read

Enbridge has failed to meet the Oct. 15 deadline for cleaning up the site of an aquifer ruptured during construction of its controversial Line 3 oil pipeline, the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources reported Friday.

Meanwhile, the DNR is investigating two other sites where the company may have caused additional groundwater damage, the agency said in a statement. The agency did not specify the location of the other sites.

State regulators will require compensation for the additional loss of groundwater during the increased time it takes to complete the work to stop the groundwater flow, the DNR said. And Enbridge also will be held accountable for any additional violations.

While working on the pipeline in January, crews from the Calgary, Alberta-based Enbridge dug too deeply into the ground and punctured an artesian aquifer near Clearbrook, Minn. The damage caused the aquifer to leak at least 24 million gallons of groundwater, threatening to dry out a nearby rare and delicate wetland area called a calcareous fen.

The DNR learned about the leak in June after independent construction monitors observed water pooling in the pipeline trench. On Sept. 16, it ordered the company to pay $3.32 million for failing to follow environmental laws.

"Enbridge is fully cooperating with the Minnesota DNR in correcting uncontrolled groundwater flows at Clearbrook, and is working with the DNR as two other locations are being evaluated," company spokeswoman Juli Kellner said by e-mail Saturday.

She did not specify the location of the two other sites, but stressed that they are not located at Clearbrook.

Oil started flowing through the pipeline on Oct. 1. Strongly opposed by environmental groups and some Ojibwe bands, it carries a thick Canadian crude across northern Minnesota to the company's terminal in Superior, Wis.

Under the DNR's order, Enbridge put $2.75 million put into escrow for restoration and damage to the delicate wetland, known as a calcareous fen. Enbridge could get some of the $2.75 million back if remediation costs less, or it could end up paying more if the bill is higher.

Enbridge has paid an additional $40,000 as compensation to the state for the last 30 days of groundwater resources lost due to uncontrolled flow and agreed to pay for additional future losses, the DNR said.

The state also fined Enbridge $20,000, the maximum allowed under state law. The fine would have been waived if Enbridge had fixed the problem by Friday's deadline.

The DNR has also referred the matter to the Clearwater County attorney for possible criminal prosecution.

Enbridge will not contest the requirements set in the DNR's order and has provided all information and paid the penalty and mitigation amounts as required, Kellner said.

The aquifer breach is a significant error on one of the largest construction projects in the state's recent history. For months it was largely out of public view because of its rural location and the company's failure to tell regulators about it when it happened.

Outraged environmental groups, scientists and Ojibwe bands who opposed the pipeline called the state's enforcement action in September too little, too late, saying the rupture is exactly the sort of problem they expected would happen in Minnesota's watery landscape.

Frank Bibeau, a attorney representing the White Earth Band of Ojibwe, said Saturday that the band wants to fly the length of the pipeline using thermal imagery to look for other leaks. Water coming from an aquifer would be warmer than the surrounding ground, he said.

Members of the band have speculated that the ground surrounding the rupture is too saturated for Enbridge to get in and fix it.

"That's what we believe is happening and that's why they haven't met the cleanup deadline," Bibeau said. "Nobody's telling anybody anything. That's why we're setting up a flyover."

Staff writer Mike Hughlett contributed to this report.