DULUTH -- For expenses ranging from gas masks and holsters, to moving a piano used by protesters and adding extra portable toilets at jails, northern Minnesota law enforcement and fire departments along the Line 3 oil pipeline route are being reimbursed by an Enbridge-funded account managed by the state.
From the start of Line 3 construction Dec. 1 to mid-March, agencies have been reimbursed more than $537,000 for expenses resulting from responding to anti-pipeline protests, attending training programs as far back as 2016, patrolling pipeline property, and protective equipment like helmet shields, according to Minnesota Public Utilities Commission documents Forum News Service received through a public records request.
As part of the PUC’s approval of the 340-mile pipeline’s route permit, the commission ordered Enbridge to fund a Public Safety Escrow Account to “to help existing law enforcement and social service agencies along the route in combatting drug and human trafficking during pipeline construction.”
While it is funded by Enbridge, the reimbursements to law enforcement agencies are considered and distributed by the state’s account manager.
Law enforcement agencies maintain the purpose of the reimbursements is to take the financial burden of Line 3 public safety efforts off taxpayers, while activists opposed to the pipeline argue the payments are a conflict of interest and incentivize more patrolling of their camps and activities.
“It puts law enforcement in the mindset that they need to protect this company because now they’re receiving a check from this company. … It immediately puts them in a bias,” said Taysha Martineau, founder of Camp Migizi, a home base for activists opposed to Line 3 on the Fond du Lac Reservation.
Juli Kellner, a spokesperson for Enbridge, reiterated that the Enbridge-funded account is disbursed by the state, not the company.
“The public safety liaison makes the determination on eligible expenses and then makes payment accordingly,” Kellner said in a statement. “In other words, these requests are not made to, nor does payment come from, Enbridge.”
Due to an influx of out-of-state workers, as well as increasing movements by activists opposed to the construction of the pipeline, many local agencies claim they have had to employ additional safety efforts and purchase more equipment over the course of construction than in previous years, putting a strain on already tight budgets.
“Our concern is public safety,” Cass County Sheriff Tom Burch said regarding additional patrols added by his department during Line 3 construction. “We just want to keep everyone safe.”
Cass County is one of the leading Minnesota counties for reimbursements sought from the escrow account, with an approximate total of $327,224 received so far for more than 7,500 hours of “proactive patrols to Line 3 property, adjacent businesses, and neighborhoods in order to protect citizens, workers and visitors,” according to account documents.
Beltrami County is also on the high end for funds received, with a total of approximately $178,798 for equipment, wages and training that dates back to 2016.
Beltrami County officials did not respond in a timely manner to a request for comment.
Burch explained that Cass County’s main reasoning behind seeking reimbursements centers on minimizing the impact on local taxpayers, stating that it should not be the responsibility of the taxpayer to pay for a problem caused by Enbridge.
He said that despite wanting to put resources toward other uses, he knows that law enforcement needs to prepare for an increase in activity, adding that they plan to protect everyone living and visiting the area, regardless of their role in the community.
This reasoning has been echoed by other law enforcement officials, with most stating that public safety and affected taxpayers are the main incentives for seeking reimbursement.
“It’s unfortunate that we have had to commit the resources that we have up to this point, but at least financially, the Hubbard County taxpayers won’t be burdened by the majority of it,” Hubbard County Sheriff Cory Aukes said.
However, activists say the law enforcement response to their protest actions, which has included chaining themselves to equipment, blocking roads and entering pipeline trenches, has been combative.
“I think it makes (law enforcement) a little more aggressive when they know that Enbridge is going to pay anything that comes out of this,” said Jeffrey Nichols-Haining, 30, of Camp Migizi, a Line 3 opponent and self-described “water protector” who shared that he’s been arrested three times for protesting Line 3.
More than 200 protesters have been arrested since construction began in December, according to groups opposed to Line 3.
Kellner said law enforcement agencies are responsible for public safety decisions — determining when a protest is unlawful or putting themselves and others in danger.
Reimbursements not received
Some public safety agencies along the pipeline have yet to see reimbursements, despite having responded to Line 3 events.
Officials from St. Louis and Carlton counties said they have not yet been reimbursed, but that they plan to seek a return in funds in the near future, with a couple agencies citing “kinks” in the escrow account system as the main reason behind the delay in returned funding.
“We are hopeful that those kinks will be worked out soon and (we) will put in for reimbursement on services we provided within the guidelines we receive from Enbridge,” Cloquet Area Fire District Chief Matthew Ashmore said. “Enbridge is working to make sure that the things we do bill for will get reimbursed.”
St. Louis County Sheriff Ross Litman said his agency is also planning to seek reimbursements in the near future, working directly with the Public Utilities Commission, not Enbridge.
Counties less impacted by pipeline activity say it is unlikely they will seek future reimbursements, unless they are called to provide aid to neighboring counties.
Agencies such as Crow Wing law enforcement and Motley Police Department explained that they have not been heavily affected by pipeline construction, but that they are prepared to help those who are.
“We want to be good neighbors,” Crow Wing County Administrator Tim Houle said.
After a planned pause for thawing and wet conditions, Enbridge is expected to resume construction on the pipeline June 1, leading law enforcement to anticipate an uptick in protest activity.
“There’s a great likelihood that activity in our county, and others along the line, will increase as the project moves along,” Litman said, explaining that the St. Louis County Sheriff’s Office has been responding almost weekly to illegal protest activity related to Line 3.
According to guidelines put forward in Line 3 permit language, requests for so-called “less-lethal” munitions like rubber bullets and tear gas, typically used for crowd control, are ineligible for reimbursement.
“The Public Safety Escrow account may not be used to reimburse expenses for equipment, except for personal protective gear for public safety personnel,” the guidelines said.
In late February, a request from Beltrami County for reimbursements of baton and chemical irritant purchases was denied in correlation with the Line 3 permit language, according to Public Safety Escrow Account documents.
The state did, however, approve Beltrami’s request for “baton stops,” to “ensure weapon retention,” to “security holsters.”
Due to these guidelines, some agencies have withheld the purchasing of items ineligible for reimbursement.
“We will manage to get through the summer,” Burch said, reiterating that even though his department may wish to purchase additional equipment, he does not want to impact taxpayers.
Carlton County Sheriff Kelly Lake explained that her department is planning to seek reimbursements, but is currently in the process of reviewing expenses and determining what items are eligible for reimbursement according to the route permit language and guidance from the Public Safety Escrow Account manager.
“If the protesters' action(s) dictate a response that necessitates law enforcement to utilize less lethal munitions as a means to bring the situation under control for Public Safety, we assumed that would be a reimbursable expense,” Lake said. “We were told that it absolutely would not be.”
As of March 25, the only Carlton County agency to receive reimbursement from the account is Carlton Fire and Ambulance for a total of $24,655.