The Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe plans its own public hearing next Friday on the proposed Sandpiper crude oil pipeline - the same day the state will decide whether to allow construction of the controversial project.
Dissatisfied with what tribal officials call a lack of cooperation from the state of Minnesota, the Mille Lacs Band has organized a hearing regarding the pipeline, which Enbridge Energy plans to use in order to transport oil more than 600 miles from wells in the Bakken region to refineries in Superior, Wis.
Mille Lacs Band Chief Executive Melanie Benjamin sent a letter dated May 27 imploring the Minnesota Public Utilities Commission to postpone deliberations scheduled for June 5.
"I again urge you to postpone the PUC vote on this matter until such time as the PUC Members have an opportunity to consider the views of the Native Americans who will be most impacted by potential spills," she wrote.
Susan Klapel, the tribe's commissioner of natural resources, said Thursday although the line is not planned to run through the reservation itself, a spill could still drastically affect the Rice Lake or Big Sandy Lake watersheds from which Mille Lacs draws water, including the reservation's wild rice beds.
"How important is rice or wheat to the rest of the United States?" she said. "We put wild rice right up there in that category. It's one of the reasons why we're here."
Benjamin said the consultation between state agencies and Indian tribes required by an executive order Gov. Mark Dayton issued in 2013 never occurred with the Mille Lacs Band in the case of the Sandpiper pipeline.
"There has been no consultation between the Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe (as well as other impacted tribes) and the PUC, nor has Enbridge consulted with the Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe," Benjamin said.
Copies of the letter were also sent to Gov. Mark Dayton, U.S. Sens. Amy Klobuchar and Al Franken, and U.S. Rep. Rick Nolan.
Benjamin's letter noted that none of the public hearings on Sandpiper took place on Indian reservations, "despite tribal requests that at least one hearing be located on an Indian reservation to afford tribal members an opportunity to engage in the hearing process."
PUC executive secretary Dan Wolf said Wednesday it wasn't up to the PUC itself to determine the location of the hearings - rather, that decision fell to Administrative Law Judge Eric Lipman, the former Republican state legislator who presided over Sandpiper hearings earlier this year as a member of the state Office of Administrative Hearings. Lipman used testimony and evidence presented during the hearings to compile a report to the PUC. In April, Lipman recommended the PUC grant a certificate of need for the overall Sandpiper project.
There was opportunity for public comment beyond the hearings themselves, including submitting written comments.
In addition, Wolf said, there's a possibility hearings could be held on a reservation during the next permitting phase: approving a specific route for Sandpaper. The hearings would be held somewhere within counties on the proposed pipeline route, he said, and the PUC can request the hearings be held in a particular place. A new administrative law judge would oversee the route permit hearing process, Wolf said.
Contacted Thursday, Lipman declined to comment on the record, saying it would be against OAH policy.
The Mille Lacs hearing on Sandpiper is scheduled for June 5 at the East Lake Community Center, south of McGregor, at 10 a.m.