A 50-foot path through forest and wetland cleared to make way for the Line 3 oil pipeline.
Crews worked on Enbridge's Line 3 oil pipeline near Hill City on Jan. 26, 2021. Fifty-foot paths through forest and wetland were cleared to make way for the pipeline. Credit: Rilyn Eischens / Minnesota Reformer

This story originally appeared in the Minnesota Reformer and was republished with permission. The Reformer is an independent, nonprofit news organization dedicated to keeping Minnesotans informed and unearthing stories other outlets can’t or won’t tell.

Multiple people allegedly assaulted by workers on Enbridge’s Line 3 pipeline in northern Minnesota have sought help from a nonprofit shelter near the construction, according to state government documents obtained by the Reformer through a public records request. 

Violence Intervention Project in Thief River Falls has seen an increase in calls for service and heard reports of sexual harassment at local businesses since pipeline construction started in December, according to the documents.

“We can all agree everyone should be treated respectfully and expect that they can live and work in a safe environment. We are taking these claims very seriously and have an investigation underway,” Enbridge wrote in a statement provided to the Reformer.

The assaults and reports of harassment were described in a request for reimbursement from Enbridge’s public safety fund, submitted last month by the anti-violence and anti-human trafficking nonprofit Violence Intervention Project. State permits for pipeline construction stipulated that Enbridge had to create the fund to cover some law enforcement costs and anti-human trafficking efforts associated with the project.

Violence Intervention Project requested roughly $250 for hotel rooms for two women allegedly assaulted by pipeline workers. The nonprofit offers hotel rooms for victims when its emergency shelter is full. Finding hotel rooms has been increasingly difficult as pipeline workers fill up local lodging, said Staci Reay, executive director. The cost of hotel rooms has doubled in recent months, she wrote in the reimbursement request.

In addition to the assaults, Violence Intervention Project staff members’ daughters have reported being sexually harassed at a gas station near the “Enbridge campground” — where some pipeline workers stay — and receiving sexually explicit messages on their phones when they’re near the gas station, Reay wrote in the request. At a local restaurant, women workers have been moved to the kitchen to avoid harassment from men during their shifts, the request says.

“When any type of mobile workforce like this comes to town, I think there’s always going to be an increase in violent situations,” Reay said. “[Enbridge] has been supportive of our organization. They gave us donations and some gift cards a couple months ago.”

For years, pipeline opponents have raised concerns that the project would lead to an increase in human trafficking and violence — especially against Native American women — which Enbridge has denied

State permits required the company to develop a human trafficking prevention plan, with input from government officials and tribes in Minnesota. All workers go through mandatory human trafficking awareness training. The company says they have a zero-tolerance policy for anyone associated with their projects engaging in exploitation or abuse.

Research shows that activity by extractive industries — like oil and mining — is linked to increased crime and human trafficking. Native American women are disproportionately affected. Tania Aubid, a member of the Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe, told the Reformer in January that she and other Native American women had been the targets of violent rhetoric and actions from locals and workers since the project was approved.

Last month, two Line 3 workers were arrested in a human trafficking sting in Itasca County.

Construction on Line 3 started in December, following six years of state review, permitting and litigation. Once complete, the pipeline will stretch more than 300 miles across northern Minnesota, carrying nearly 32 million gallons of crude oil each day from Hardisty, Alberta, to Superior, Wisconsin. 

Enbridge and pipeline supporters say the new line is necessary to to meet demand for oil and to replace the existing Line 3, which was built in the 1960s and they say requires increasingly intensive repairs and upkeep each year. The project has also created jobs for roughly 5,000 welders, equipment operators and laborers, half of them Minnesotans.

Opponents say the pipeline will eventually leak and contaminate Minnesota’s forests and waters with crude oil. The cultural significance of these lands and the wild rice beds near the pipeline make the risk intolerable for Native people, who say the project also violates their treaty rights.