Minn. authorities prep for pipeline protests: St. Louis Co. sheriff: ‘It’s clearly on our minds’
DULUTH — The prospect of protests in Minnesota along the Enbridge Line 3 pipeline construction corridor is forcing officials to consider ways to pay for law enforcement responses and other associated costs.
"It's clearly on our minds," St. Louis County Sheriff Ross Litman said. "If the resources required go beyond the expense associated, it's a legitimate concern."
In a letter last week to the Minnesota Public Utilities Commission, and copied to Gov. Mark Dayton and other lawmakers, the Association of Minnesota Counties called the expenses "out of ordinary."
"It is likely that there will be a need for services and support that go beyond ... typical functions," the letter said.
The Public Utilities Commission is weighing whether to permit Line 3 reconstruction. The pipeline from the Alberta tar sands to the Superior, Wis., refinery is already approved in Canada and Wisconsin, where construction is underway in both places.
Executive director Julie Ring, of the Association of Minnesota Counties, told the News Tribune on Friday, May 5, that initial reports of the letter asking for Enbridge to reimburse counties was misinterpreted by other media outlets. The letter only asks state officials and lawmakers to consider a process for reimbursement of costs associated with keeping order at pipeline protests. The idea that Enbridge would reimburse counties creates the illusion of law enforcement working for the company — a notion all sources for this story say they want to avoid.
"Our concern honestly is being prepared and learning from what happened in North Dakota and trying to be prepared for unanticipated costs," Ring said. "We're not talking about routine day-to-day law enforcement. We should be planning for the potential for something out of the ordinary."
Ring was referring to the Dakota Access Pipeline protests by the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe in North Dakota, where thousands of people gathered with the tribe for several months to protest the pipeline crossing beneath waterways. The protests saw more than 100 arrests and clashes between authorities and protesters.
Litman and Undersheriff Dave Phillips met with Forum News Service on Friday to discuss the prospect of further protesting should the proposed Line 3 replacement gain state approval this summer.
"It's hard for me to sit here being so confident when we saw what can happen in other areas," Litman said, "but I remain optimistic."
St. Louis County is home to the roughly year-old Mawka protest camp inside the Fond du Lac Reservation. The camp has been used by self-described water protectors to stage protests which began last summer on pipeline construction sites in nearby Wisconsin. The Makwa camp has been the subject of multiple law enforcement calls, including one in April yielding four arrests.
Also in April, an administrative law judge recommended Line 3 be replaced in its existing location, which runs through the southwest corner of St. Louis County. Enbridge has pushed an alternate route, which would avoid St. Louis County and create 337 miles of new pipeline through the state on a more southern trajectory. In that case, St. Louis County would likely be called on to provide mutual aid to neighboring law enforcement agencies.
"Our job as an agency is to uphold constitutional law for both sides," Phillips said. "So on one side you've got people saying this isn't right and could be dangerous to the environment, and they have a right to do that. We have to uphold that. On the other side we have rule of law and permitting, which is authorizing and endorsing a lawful activity. So there's the storm cloud — the clash of the fronts."
Phillips added that so far locally and at Standing Rock, protesters were largely peaceable.
"A very small minority can create the conflict we have to address," he said.
To that end, the St. Louis County Sheriff's Office is prepared with a tactical response team equipped with protective gear.
"We've had the equipment for many years," Litman said, before describing its use. "It's all based on circumstances and the best judgment of those that are first on the scene."
Litman compared the protests to labor strife and manmade or natural disasters — the sorts of events the Sheriff's Office has encountered throughout its history.
In the case of pipeline protests, when, where and with what frequency the events will take place are the primary variables which have people wondering how law enforcement involvement will be funded. Litman agreed that while his office is prepared for anything, the prospect of daily involvement with protesting would be out of the ordinary.
"While all of this is going on, we're responding to calls every day dealing with other issues and that pulls us away," he said. "Depending on the situation we might need to page deputies that are not working and if it rises to such a level even our emergency response team. If the size or complexity of the situation is so great you can't handle it with two or three or four deputies, we'll call additional resources."
How those resources are paid for is Ring's concern for the 15 or more counties that could be directly or indirectly impacted by pipeline construction and subsequent protests.
"We're asking all of our state partners and entities to be thinking about our costs and planning for our costs as this moves forward," she said. "That's the crux of it."