By Tess Wadsworth, Sierra Club Project Aide

Right now Enbridge, a Canadian company, operates a pipeline called Line 5 across northern Wisconsin, through the Straits of Mackinac, and through Michigan back to Canada. It carries tar sands products and threatens countless waterways, wetlands, wildlife, and communities. Enbridge is attempting to expand Line 5 and has applied for permits to do so.

On February 2, 2022, the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources (DNR) held a public hearing to take comments on a draft Environmental Impact Statement (EIS), which they will use to determine whether or not to grant Enbridge’s permits. The public overwhelmingly opposed the pipeline. Written comments will be accepted through April 15 (you can submit yours here). There are countless issues at stake with this expansion, and this blog post highlights one in particular: with Enbridge’s proposed expansion would come significant construction and associated issues, like horizontal directional drilling.

What is horizontal directional drilling?

Horizontal directional drilling (HDD) has been around since the 1970s and continues to harm sensitive waterways like wetlands and rivers today. The HDD method requires drilling a hole horizontally into the ground and pumping drilling fluid or mud inside, to eventually install a pipe segment that goes through the hole. Drilling fluid provides lubrication for tools and helps maintain a straight path for cutting. Although oil companies like Enbridge use HDD often, the environmental impacts of this method have large consequences on wetlands and other sensitive ecosystems.

Why is HDD harmful to the environment?

HDD is a hazardous process. Frac outs are likely to occur, especially in icy environments. A frac out is the unintentional release of drilling fluids into a body of water. During installation, these frac outs are very likely to happen, and for that reason, numerous certifications and requirements are set in order to preserve sensitive waterways. The release of drilling fluid is either from loss of control, different elevations in drilling location, rock fractures, or other complications. That being the case, what exactly is in drilling fluid? This differs with construction companies, but as for Enbridge, they are allowed to use “proprietary ingredients and suspending agents.” In some cases, the public will never really know what exactly is in drilling fluid. Low flow areas, like wetlands in watersheds, are even more vulnerable to drilling fluid releases. When frac outs occur, drilling fluids can affect the growth of plants. For example, because the fluid has such a high density, it prohibits root development and reduces light available for plants to photosynthesize. What’s more, physical disturbance from frac out cleanup activities can result in even greater environmental damage as wetland plant communities are extremely vulnerable to physical disturbance, which is another reason why HDD should not be happening in the first place.

Enbridge recently completed construction of another tar sands pipeline, Line 3, in Minnesota, and the issues that surfaced there show what’s likely to happen with Line 5 in Wisconsin, should Enbridge be successful in getting permits.

“[In Minnesota] Enbridge polluted water at 63% of these horizontal drilling locations… I watched Enbridge drain entire rivers and streams, frac out areas that were once pristine, and kill off clams and fish almost entirely… This was information that was never reported by Enbridge.”

— Sophia C., February 2 Line 5 WI DNR Hearing

Enbridge is responsible for at least 28 frac outs that took place during Line 3 pipeline construction. Line 3 is a pipeline expansion that carries tar sands crude oil from Alberta, Canada, to Superior, Wisconsin. The 1,097-mile pipeline includes a 337-mile stretch across northern Minnesota, undeniably posing a serious and unnecessary risk to lakes and streams. Drilling fluid was released at 12 river crossings in Minnesota violating the MPCA’s 401 Water Quality Certification.

On July 6, 2021, 80–100 gallons of drilling fluid were released into Willow River in Aitkin County. This river flows directly into the Kettle River, which is classified as a “restricted” Outstanding Resource Value Water (ORVW), meaning it has extra levels of protection. After the frac out occurred, protestors reported zero state officials monitoring the incident or collecting water samples. These precautions are vital in ecologically sensitive areas (Willow River!); post-cleanup remediation and/or recovery monitoring is required immediately. Instead, the Minnesota DNR went to monitor water protectors at the site, not the spill. Six water protectors were arrested that day. Additionally, Enbridge was also approved to drain five billion gallons of local freshwater for construction, which caused a serious threat to the low lakes and rivers in Minnesota.

The most recent frac out occurred on September 16, 2021, when drilling fluid was released into the Mississippi River, also classified as a restricted ORVW. This Facebook post from Ron Turney shows the impact this frac out had on the environment and the extreme effects frac outs have on wetlands. Below is a timeline of Enbridge’s Line 3 pipeline replacement project and some of the complications that have accompanied it.

What’s next? HDD and Line 5 in Wisconsin

Right now, Enbridge is proposing to expand Line 5 with a new 30-inch-diameter pipe within Ashland, Bayfield, and Iron counties. Enbridge needs local, state, and federal permits before construction can begin. The Wisconsin DNR has issued a draft Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) regarding Line 5, and once the document is finalized, the agency will use it to determine whether or not to grant Enbridge’s permits. Before finalizing the draft EIS, the DNR is taking public comments on it — including what’s missing. The draft is sloppy and needs significant additions to do justice to what’s at stake.

The proposed Line 5 expansion DEIS, which reads more like a project manual, is lacking in specifics regarding the environment, which I thought was the whole point of an EIS…. It minimizes direct and long-term construction impacts despite the recent Line 3 mishaps in Minnesota, where an aquifer was breached and 28 frac outs were reported. HDD, which is proposed for 13 sites, fails to mention the proprietary contents of the drilling mud used in that process, which will likely leak into nearby fragile wetlands and waterways.”

— Sheila M., February 2 Line 5 WI DNR Hearing

From what we can infer about HDD and Enbridge’s Line 3 pipeline project, the expansion of Line 5 can and will pose a serious threat to the environment. Despite claiming, before Line 3 construction, that HDD was safe, Enbridge has admitted that the “inadvertent release of drilling fluid during HDD crossings” is a “common risk associated with the HDD crossing method.” This is a risk that is not worth it. As stated before, Enbridge plans to go forth with HDD in 13 different locations. Don’t let Enbridge risk our communities. Submit a comment to the DNR concerning the DEIS. Take action here!


This post originally appeared on the blog of the Wisconsin Chapter of the Sierra Club.