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Enbridge plan to replace aging pipeline draws strong support at Grand Rapids hearing

GRAND RAPIDS, Minn. — An oil company's plan to replace an aging pipeline with a new route found strong support Tuesday, Oct. 10, during an afternoon hearing in Grand Rapids.

Enbridge has proposed to replace its 50-year-old Line 3 pipeline, a 1,031-mile route from Hardisty, Alberta, to Superior, Wis., that crosses through a handful of Minnesota counties.

The project, which has cleared the state draft Environmental Impact Statement and comment period, is going through a new round of public hearings after the Minnesota Department of Commerce weighed in on the project in September, saying the state was "better off" if the company ceased operations on the old line without replacing it.

A large crowd of mostly Enbridge supporters, workers and executives filed into the IRA Civic Center in Grand Rapids clad in lime green shirts to back the project. It was the fifth of 18 public hearings at nine locations. Another hearing was scheduled for Tuesday night at the Civic Center in Grand Rapids.

Supporters of the project addressed the safety of pipelines over train cars to transport crude oil, and the potential for hundreds of jobs created by constructing the new line.

"We need more young families to want to move here," said Tamra Lowney.

The $6.5 billion Line 3 replacement project is already under construction in Canada and Wisconsin. Enbridge wants the pipeline online by 2019, and a recommendation from the state Public Utilities Commission is expected by the end of April.

A bipartisan contingent of Minnesota lawmakers also testified in favor of the project, including state Sen. Justin Eichorn, R-Grand Rapids, Sen. David Tomassoni, DFL-Chisholm, and Republican House Speaker Kurt Daudt. Daudt said in an interview prior to the hearing that he was "shocked" the Commerce Department, a nonpartisan entity, would take what he considered a partisan stance on the issue.

"Gov. [Mark] Dayton and his administration bend over backwards for protesters and radical environmentalists," Daudt said. He said a pipeline project runs through his district in Crown, miles from his own home, with little notice. "Ninety percent — maybe 99 percent — don't even know it's there. It's a non-factor. I live with it and my neighbors live with it."

Dayton has said he will wait for the process to play out "before expressing my personal views."

Jason George, special projects director for the Local 49ers, a pipeliners union, said it was common sense to replace to the 50-year-old current line with new technology that is better at detecting weakened pipes and preventing spills.

Jobs For Minnesotans, a community, business and labor group, is also behind the project.

"Jobs For Minnesotans sees a triple bottom line in the Line 3 replacement project — the first, the direct and indirect economic benefits of over $2 billion to the state of Minnesota with over 6,500 jobs created for Minnesotans; the second, access to affordable and reliable energy to fuel our lives and our economy; and the third, increased environmental protection for our communities and the waters of our state," said Nancy Norr, chair of the group. "We strongly support these benefits and encourage the PUC to grant the Certificate of Need and Route Permit in a timely manner."

Opponents of the pipeline addressed their concerns Tuesday, outlining alternate routes and addressing climate change issues and reduced reliance on fossil fuels.

Richard Smith, of Friends of the Headwaters in Hubbard County, presented the group's so-called SA-04 alternate route. The route goes toward the southern end of Minnesota to avoid potential impacts to wetlands and wild rice lakes that could be tainted in the event of a leak.

Sandra Skanaway said removing the existing line would also create jobs, saying "it's not a matter of it, but when" the new Line 3 would spring a leak.

Others said the country was too dependent on fossil fuels and needs to pursue other options that would also provide jobs. Pipeline supporters said alternatives to petroleum are in the future, but the timeframe to convert existing cars and perfect the technology is at least 20 years away. Instead of cutting off fossil fuels at once, the country should look for safer, more efficient ways to transport it through pipelines.

But opponents of the project rebutted that the process toward alternative energy sources has already started, and the desire and need to invest more in those other sources is now.

"We're at a point of transition in this country," said Diana Lieffring in opposition to Line 3, "and we need to go the clean way."

The Minnesota PUC is taking public input on the Line 3 project at its website (mn.gov/puc/line3/participate/#3) through Nov. 22. It is also taking comments at the public hearings, including the Wednesday, Oct. 18, in Duluth.

Grand Rapids Herald-Review reporter Kassandra Tuten contributed to this report from Grand Rapids.

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