Pipeline firm deposited millions into state fund to pay local police to 'patrol' and 'protect' controversial Line 3 project
The project has been the target of a massive civil disobedience campaign.
Enbridge -- a private Canadian energy corporation -- has paid more than $2.9 million for Minnesota law enforcement and public safety organization expenses related to the company's controversial Line 3 oil pipeline through a state-managed escrow account, according to documents obtained by ABC News through public records requests.
The majority of the Enbridge money went toward more than $2 million in law enforcement wages for services such as conducting proactive patrols along the pipeline route and "protecting the construction workers and equipment," according to the records.
The account also reimbursed law enforcement hundreds of thousands of dollars for training, protective gear, transportation, hotel rooms, and meals while policing the pipeline, according to the records.
"If a state is openly in a financial relationship with a private actor, through an escrow account, where they are paying the police to protect their project, that should concern all of the public," Northern Minnesota-based tribal attorney and prominent Line 3 opponent Tara Houska told ABC News.
Enbridge strongly refutes the concept that they have turned local Minnesota police into a private security force, or that they had any control at all over how the account was spent.
"The escrow account was created by the state of Minnesota through the Public Utility Commission," Enbridge Chief Communications Officer Mike Fernandez told ABC News. "All we were asked to do was contribute money to that escrow account. We make no judgments about how that money is spent. It was a condition of us actually getting the permit in order to operate."
"The judgments are all made by professionals in the state of Minnesota that have law enforcement backgrounds, and they are the ones that make judgments on the specific payments," Fernandez said.
The thousand-mile-long Line 3 pipeline transports Canadian tar sands oil -- a high-emissions fossil fuel often described as the world's dirtiest oil -- through indigenous lands and waters, including the vulnerable headwaters of the Mississippi River.
The project has been the target of multiple court battles and a years-long massive civil disobedience campaign led by indigenous women in Minnesota. Opposition to the controversial project has resulted in nearly 900 arrests, including dozens around the U.S. Capitol earlier this month.
A spokesperson for the Minnesota Public Utilities Commission -- the state agency that oversees the escrow account -- wrote in a statement to ABC News that they had established the account "because pipeline projects in other parts of the country have sometimes resulted in added burdens to law enforcement and social service agencies."
"The Commission appointed an independent Escrow Account Manager to evaluate all reimbursement requests and approve those requests that comply with the terms of the permit," PUC spokesperson Will Seuffert wrote.
Enbridge has deposited at least $4.25 million into the account, according to the PUC's general counsel, Ryan Barlow.
Mara Verheyden-Hilliard, director of the Partnership for Civil Justice Fund and an attorney representing pipeline opponents, told ABC News that the arrangement with Enbridge is an "extraordinary set-up where the corporation is paying limitless funds into an account shared by multiple sheriff's departments across the state."
"This creates a new structure that fundamentally will distort any pretense of public policing in America and will be very dangerous to fundamental democratic principles," she said.
Records show that at times during the Line 3 project, law enforcement billed the escrow account specifically for officers' time related to surveillance of pipeline opposition groups. One police department had wages reimbursed for an officer maintaining "mobile surveillance on multiple believed rally participants" in March, after he followed several cars believed to be occupied by pipeline opponents. The reimbursement requests also include references to "stationary patrols" near known pipeline opposition camps that were "observed" and "monitored."
One county sheriff's reimbursement request states their deputies' duties were to "protect the construction workers and equipment." Numerous requests describe the officers' duties as providing "pipeline security" or "drill site security." Some police supervisors also met with Enbridge officials "to discuss project work areas, safety concerns, calls for service, intelligence gathering and public safety initiatives for the day," according to multiple reimbursement requests.
Enbridge also designed and conducted numerous training exercises with local law enforcement, according to documents first obtained by The Intercept. The documents also show that public officials shared intelligence with Enbridge, such as a list of attendees at a pipeline opposition meeting.
Multiple law enforcement agencies who were paid from the escrow account, as well as the Northern Lights Task Force, an umbrella organization of law enforcement agencies along the pipeline route, declined to be interviewed for this story and did not respond to requests for comment.
However, National Association of Police Organizations Executive Director Bill Johnson told ABC News that the arrangement with Enbridge is not alarming.
"This is in an effort to address realistic safety concerns that arise from the type/location/size of the business/event," Johnson said. "Employers typically make payment not directly to the individual officers working the event, but to the governmental or other agency responsible for assigning/providing the officers."
Among the group of nearly 70 local law enforcement and public safety agencies, the Cass County Sheriff's Office received the most money from the escrow account: more than $900,000 as of Oct. 1. The sum accounts for more than 13% of their budget for 2020. Most of the money was for deputies' wages, including overtime, incurred during "proactive patrols" of the pipeline route. The reimbursement requests also note that the sheriff's "quick response to resolve issues has been successful in keeping the project moving" and that Enbridge employees "have been extremely appreciative of our efforts."
One Cass County Sheriff's Office request includes reimbursement for a three-night stay at a $727-per-night "beach resort" for two "extra deputies" -- in a suite that accommodates 12 people and has three bedrooms and three bathrooms.
The Cass County Sheriff's Office declined to be interviewed for this report and did not respond to a request for comment. A spokesperson for the Public Utilities Commission wrote that "accommodations reserved were based on available supply in the areas, with more expensive lodging being needed where there was a shortage of available lodging."
"Those relationships should be deeply concerning for any person ... regardless of where you sit on a pipeline issue," Tara Houska told ABC News. "There should be a separation between private interests and the state."
On July 29, Houska and members of her pipeline opposition group attempted to enter an active drilling site and were met by officers from multiple law enforcement agencies. A police report included in an escrow account reimbursement noted that flashbangs and other nonlethal munitions were deployed against the group as they attempted to enter the site and halt the pipeline from being drilled under the Red River.
Houska recalled "being shot at with rubber bullets and mace at point-blank range. People's heads were bleeding." She said she was struck multiple times by rubber bullets that produced scars that remain to this day.
"It was a nightmare, you know, to see that, to see police officers protecting this giant sci-fi drill that's going underneath this river," Houska said.
Enbridge paid for the officers' wages, transportation, and meals to protect the drill site that day -- and many others. Law enforcement did not request reimbursement for the munitions they fired, but Enbridge did pick up the tab for the officers' meals, which included chicken wings, burgers, and nachos, according to receipts.
The Wright County Sheriff's office, whose deputies were among the law enforcement present that day and wrote an accompanying incident report, did not respond to a request for comment.
ABC News' Patrick Linehan contributed to this report.
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