As It Happens

Pipeline opponents launch lawsuit against Line 3 — and the lead plaintiff is wild rice

Wild rice is the lead plaintiff — alongside anti-pipeline protesters and members of the White Earth First Nation — in a new lawsuit aimed at halting construction of Enbridge's Line 3 oil pipeline replacement. 

'Wild rice protects us. Wild rice feeds us,' says White Earth First Nation lawyer

Frank Bibeau is a treaty rights attorney for White Earth First Nation in Minnesota, and he's suing the state's Department of Natural Resources on behalf of tribal members, Line 3 protesters, and wild rice. (Submitted by Frank Bibeau)

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Wild rice is the lead plaintiff in a new lawsuit aimed at halting construction of Enbridge's Line 3 oil pipeline replacement. 

"Wild rice is the most important spiritual, central part of our culture. Wild rice is what's making us come out and protect water," Frank Bibeau, a treaty rights attorney for the White Earth First Nation in Minnesota, told As It Happens guest host Nil Köksal. 

"Wild rice protects us. Wild rice feeds us. Wild rice tells us when there's something wrong in the water or in the air or in the ground. Wild rice is an indicator species. And wild rice is disappearing."

Bibeau filed the suit Wednesday in the White Earth Nation Tribal Court. It lists the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources (DNR) as a defendant, and several White Earth tribal members and Line 3 protesters as plaintiffs alongside wild rice, or manoomin in Ojibway.

People who oppose the Line 3 pipeline replacement raise their fists in the Mississippi River near an Enbridge pipeline construction site on June 7 in Clearwater County, Minn. (Alex Kormann/Star Tribune/The Associated Press)

Line 3 starts in Alberta and clips a corner of North Dakota before crossing northern Minnesota en route to Enbridge's terminal in Superior, Wis.

The 542-kilometre line in Minnesota is the last phase in replacing the deteriorating pipeline that was built in the 1960s, and has been the focal point of protest by Indigenous water protectors and environmental activists. 

The lawsuit alleges Minnesota is failing to protect the state's fresh water by allowing the Calgary-based company to pump up to five billion gallons of groundwater from construction trenches during a drought. In doing so, it says the state is endangering the crop and violating tribal members' treaty rights to harvest it. 

The lawsuit also accuses the state of violating the rice's right to "exist, flourish, regenerate and evolve" — something the White Earth First Nation enshrined into its law in 2018.

Several U.S. municipalities have adopted laws enshrining the "rights of nature" in recent years. In the spring, environmental activists in Florida put one of those laws to the test for the first time, filing a lawsuit on behalf of a network of streams, lakes and marshes.

Bibeau says this is the first "rights of nature" case brought before a tribal court in the U.S.

He explained that manoomin is sacred to his people, and is the reason they first came to the Great Lakes.

 "We've got to stand up. We had no choice. That's who we are. We're the people of the falls, people of the rivers, people of the rice," Bibeau said. 

The Enbridge Line 3 pipeline is pictured in place to be buried near Park Rapids, Minn., on June 6. (Nicholas Pfosi/Reuters)

The lawsuit asks the tribal court to grant an injunction to void the water permit the DNR issued to Enbridge for Line 3. 

But even if the lawsuit is successful, Bibeau says he doesn't expect the state to abide by the tribal court's decision. Still, he says Line 3 opponents could use a tribal court victory to fast-track their case to a U.S. federal court.

DNR spokesperson Gail Nosek said the agency is reviewing the lawsuit and had no further comment.

Enbridge spokesperson Lorraine Little said the company has shown respect for tribal sovereignty and has routed the pipelines outside the Upper and Lower Rice Lake and its watershed because of tribal concerns.

"Line 3 construction permits include conditions that specifically protect wild rice waters," Little said. "As a matter of fact, Enbridge pipelines have coexisted with Minnesota's most sacred and productive wild rice stands for over seven decades."

But Bibeau says that coexistence has been a troubled one, noting the pipeline has ruptured several times over the decades. 

He referenced a 1991 incident, in which the Line 3 oil pipeline ruptured in Grand Rapids, Minn., spilling 1.7 million gallons of crude oil onto the frozen Prairie River. It remains the largest inland oil spill in U.S. history, according to Minnesota Public Radio

"The pipeline has to stop. The DNR is also going to have to recognize our rights and respect those rights," Bibeau said.

"It's the Creator who's making a mockery of it by saying: Hey, look what you're doing to the Earth. And now the Earth has to come out and sue you in front of God and everybody."

Line 3 opponents are also trying other legal avenues to stop the project. In July, tribal and environmental groups asked the Minnesota Supreme Court to overturn a lower court decision affirming Enbridge's regulatory approvals.

Written by Sheena Goodyear with files from The Associated Press. Interview with Frank Bibeau produced by Niza Lyapa Nondo.

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