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Activists in Hubbard County, Minnesota, chained themselves to a semi truck carrying drilling equipment Monday in an attempt to stop construction of Line 3, a $9.3 billion pipeline meant to transport some of the most climate-destructive oil in the world into the states.
That’s when local cops stepped in. Officers arrested the activists blocking the equipment as well as 29 water protectors peacefully protesting on the side of the road, according to Tara Houska, a lead resistance organizer, tribal attorney, and former adviser to Sen. Bernie Sanders on Native American affairs.
“If I was there, I would have been arrested,” said Houska, who was helping with other protests nearby and monitoring the situation via phone. “There was one person who was trying to figure out how to have the best view for our friends who were locked down to the equipment. A few seconds later, you heard the police officers saying, ‘You’re all under arrest.’”
The new pipeline, being built by Canadian-based energy behemoth Enbridge, would carry tar-sands, a particularly dirty type of oil, from Alberta, Canada, across the North Dakota border, through a large portion of Minnesota, and finally to a port in Superior, Wisconsin. It’s a thick mixture of sand, clay, and a peanut-butter-like substance called bitumen. The oil causes three times the amount of greenhouse gas emissions than the production of conventional oil and takes significantly more freshwater to produce.
Not only does the pipeline put the local water sources and ecosystems at risk of contamination, the intended location also covers Native American-protected land. Leaders of local nations say the pipeline violates treaties signed in the 1800s meant to protect Indigenous peoples’ ability to live off their land.
Earlier this month, a massive protest brought over 2,000 people from around the country for a four-day event in solidarity with Anishinaabe people, whose land is being disturbed by the project. At one point, a Department of Homeland Security helicopter—the same one that surveilled George Floyd Square during protests—flew dangerously low to the ground and sprayed protesters with dirt and debris. Nearly 200 people were arrested, bringing the total number of detained protesters in the Line 3 fight to more than 500, according to Houska.
The local sheriff, however, maintains that Monday’s arrests were necessary.
“Driving recklessly and forcing a semi tractor-trailer on the highway to slam on their brakes and stop is not the proper way to demonstrate,” said Hubbard County Sheriff Cory Aukes. “Occupants of the vehicle then jumped out and chained themselves underneath the semi causing a major traffic hazard. This certainly was not a lawful protest and the Hubbard County Sheriff's Office was forced to take legal action against those breaking the law.”
Enbridge has marketed the pipeline as a “replacement” for one that burst in 1991, causing the largest inland oil spill in U.S. history. But the new project would double the existing line’s oil carrying capacity to 760,000 barrels per day. That’s the environmental equivalent to building 50 new coal mines in the area, according to multiple environmental groups.
Tar sands oil is highly toxic and could be detrimental to natural ecosystems, if the new Line 3 pipeline were to leak. Nearby wetlands would become poisoned by the substance, harming wildlife and contaminating wild rice fields—a source of food and significant spiritual importance for the Anishinaabe. The project crosses 800 wetlands and 200 bodies of water in total, according to Houska.
It’s these homelands that are protected under the treaties signed more than 200 years ago. Between 1825 and 1865, the U.S. government and the Anishinaabe in Minnesota signed 10 treaties that protected wildlife so that the Native Americans could hunt, fish, and gather wild rice on their land without disturbance. Native American treaties, however, have been repeatedly broken across the United States.
“Our struggle continues,” Houska said. “An invitation to folks to come take a stand remains.”
Indigenous peoples have also been harassed on their land near the Line 3 site, as VICE News previously reported. In February, two workers with an Enbridge pipeline contractor helping build Line 3 were arrested in Northern Minnesota during a sex trafficking sting operation.
Still, the project is moving forward as planned.
Monday’s arrests came the same day as a three-judge panel with the Minnesota Court of Appeals ruled in-favor 2-1 of the pipeline. They affirmed the Minnesota Public Utilities Commission's (PUC) position that the pipeline is needed, even though they acknowledged the harm the pipeline will cause.
“With an existing, deteriorating pipeline carrying crude oil through Minnesota, there was no option without environmental consequences,” the court’s decision reads. “There was no option without impacts on the rights of indigenous peoples.”
The one dissenting judge, Peter Reyes, disagreed and wrote that the decision “cannot stand,” because of the harm to Minnesota’s Indigenous people and wildlife.
Indigenous leaders also slammed the court's affirmation. Honor the Earth, a Native-led environmental protection coalition composed of multiple Native nationals, said in a statement the court had violated treaty rights established in 1855, and that they plan to continue in protests.
“We are very disappointed that the Court of Appeals upheld the PUC’s decision to issue the certificate of need,” said White Earth Reservation Business Committee Chairman Michael Fairbanks in a release. “Despite the Court’s ruling, the White Earth Reservation remains steadfast in our opposition to the construction of this unnecessary and dangerous pipeline.”
President Joe Biden, however, could step in and halt the project—just like he did earlier this month with the Keystone XL pipeline. And that’s what water protectors are hoping will come of all the arrests and pain they’ve experienced.
“The reality moving forward is that this lies squarely with the Biden administration to decide what happens with Line 3,” Houska said. “He needs to follow the climate science and uphold tribal sovereignty. The actions on the ground will continue until that outcome is reached.”