Workers are heading to hotels in Thief River Falls, and northwest Minnesota counties are looking forward to a boost in business following final approvals for the Enbridge Line 3 pipeline replacement project.

The approvals for the project came in a flurry after Enbridge had been seeking the go-ahead for six years to replace its degrading pipeline. On Nov. 30, the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency issued a stormwater construction permit, which followed final construction approval from the state utility regulator on Nov. 25, and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers signed off on the project a day before that.

Pipeline workers didn’t waste any time heading to the region. Now, the seven hotels in Thief River Falls, as well as surrounding areas, are beginning to fill up.

“So far, I know of three that are full for sure, out of the seven,” said Laura Stengrim, executive director of Visit Thief River Falls.

Stengrim said her office has been getting calls about lodging from people in West Virginia, Texas, Oklahoma and North Dakota. The influx comes at a time when hotels everywhere have taken a drastic hit in guest numbers. Local restaurants are grappling with state restrictions, signed in mid-November by Gov. Tim Walz, that closed them to indoor dining and shuttered other entertainment venues in the face of a rising wave of coronavirus cases.

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“Now that it is finally approved and the workers are here in Thief River Falls, we just feel very lucky that it’s happening during this really tough time of the COVID pandemic,” Stengrim said.

Commissioners onboard

Officials in northwest Minnesota counties, when contacted by the Herald, were in agreement that the pipeline project would bring a huge impact to businesses there, since workers will stay, shop and eat locally. According to a project description on Enbridge’s website, the company estimates non-local workers will generate $162 million for local economies.

“It will be a great thing for our local hotels and for all the businesses that they'll be purchasing stuff from,” said Pennington County Commissioner Neil Peterson.

Red Lake County Commissioner Anthony “Chuck” Flage said the Chateau Motel in Red Lake Falls was already full, and that workers were likely coming to the region to make sure they had lodging before everything was booked. A staff member at the Chateau declined to speak when the Herald reached out to seek comment.

The benefit will continue after construction work has been completed, as the Canadian company will pay taxes on the new pipeline and the volume of product that flows through it. Marshall County Commissioner Jim Duckstad called Enbridge the largest taxpayer in the county and said the county can expect millions in revenue.

“It's going to be great,” Duckstad said. “As a county board, we support it 100%. It's a huge (source of) tax revenue to Marshall County.”

The $2.6 billion replacement project calls for thousands of jobs, with many being filled by local workers, over a two-year period. Payroll for those workers will amount to about $334 million, with half that going to local workers, according to Enbridge.

Opposition remains

On Nov. 30, a lawsuit was filed with the Minnesota Court of Appeals challenging the state pollution control agency’s approval of a water quality permit for the pipeline project. The suit was filed by Friends of the Headwaters, the White Earth Band of Ojibwe, the Red Lake Band of Chippewa, the Sierra Club and Honor the Earth.

“MPCA’s approval of permits for Line 3 isn’t just out of step with science and the will of Minnesotans, it also violates the law,” Sierra Club North Star Chapter Director Margaret Levin said in a Dec. 1 release. “We will not stop fighting to ensure that this dangerous tar sands pipeline expansion is never completed.”

And the lawsuit isn’t alone. Last week, the White Earth Band of Ojibwe and the Red Lake Band of Chippewa asked the Minnesota Public Utilities Commission to stay recent approvals granted to the project, which would allow existing lawsuits to make their way through the appellate system. Those lawsuits are challenging the environmental impact statement for the pipeline, as well as its required certificate of need.

In a late Tuesday afternoon news release, Minnesota Sen. Mark Johnson, R-East Grand Forks, said there is a chance the Public Utilities Commission could hold a special meeting that results in a stay of the approvals, but he hoped it wouldn't happen. Communities in northern Minnesota, he said, have long been waiting for the project to get the go-ahead, and "COVID-battered economies" can benefit from the project.

"As our economy continues to suffer from COVID and the ongoing lockdown, we must work together to secure high-paying jobs and safer energy for Minnesotans when we need them most," Johnson said.

Protests?

Peterson said he didn’t believe there would be many local protests over the project, but he is waiting and watching to see what groups outside Pennington County and the state would do. Counties along the pipeline, he said, have mutual aid agreements that allow local law enforcement to provide assistance should a protest “get out of hand.” East Grand Forks approved such a policy on Tuesday, Dec. 1.

In Marshall County, Duckstad said Enbridge has its own security and is taking precautions should a protest happen and will work with the local sheriff’s department. In Red Lake County, Flage said there has been talk of protests, but he ultimately doesn’t know what will happen.

“All we have to do is hope. We don't know,” Flage said.