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'They're Shoving A Pipe Down Our Throat': Inside Winona LaDuke's Fight Against Line 3

BEMIDJI, Minn. (WCCO) -- You've likely heard about Line 3 by now. It's a pipeline that would bring tar sands oil through northern Minnesota to Superior, Wisconsin.

Part of it would run alongside an existing pipeline corridor but some of the route requires carving out a new path.

Construction on the Minnesota portion started in December and is expected to pick back up June 1. But the resistance to the project hasn't let up.

Line 3 construction legal challenges and protests have been ongoing for months and years. We recently traveled to the Bemidji area to meet the women leading the resistance and to see what they say they are fighting to protect.

"Well we are quite ferocious competition," said Winona LaDuke of Honor the Earth.

RELATED: Judge Blocks Another Bid To Shut Down Line 3 Construction

You could call her a Harvard-educated economist, an author, farmer, and nonprofit organizer. Or you could call her a former vice presidential candidate and an Anishinaabe.

LaDuke is all that. And she's a water protector who's been fighting a pipeline route near the White Earth reservation she lives on for eight years.

She took us to see the Shell River and Shell Lake, one of her biggest concerns.

"This is the Shell River coming out of Shell Lake, and this river is crossed four times by Enbridge," LaDuke said.

The pipeline will cross not only this river but the Mississippi River twice along with more than 200 other bodies of water, according to LaDuke.

The company building the pipeline says its old Line 3 has crossed rivers safely for decades.

But LaDuke says a spill would be devastating.

Winona LaDuke Line 3 Pipeline Protest
Winona LaDuke (credit: CBS)

"It's a really beautiful lake, it is a lake that is full of wild rice," LaDuke said. "There's a lot of life in this river, and they don't deserve it."

RELATED: Line 3 Contractor Killed In Aitkin County Construction Yard

Enbridge, a Canadian based energy company, is behind the project. It moves roughly a quarter of the crude oil produced in North America.

It says the rest of the pipeline is already built and the Minnesota portion is half-finished.

The company's original Line 3, built in the 60s, runs crude roughly 1,100 miles from Canada to Superior, Wisconsin.

The company's multi-billion dollar replacement project carves out a new path - right in between three reservations near Bemidji.

"Nobody here supports that pipeline, nobody here supports that pipeline," LaDuke said, speaking of the White Earth reservation. "These housing projects here are full of people harvesting wild rice. These are people that are saying no to a Canadian multinational corporation."

But they're not in it alone.

There's a lawsuit against the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency for issuing a water quality certification for the line.

The Minnesota Department of Commerce and environmental advocates are appealing the Public Utility Commissions Decision to approve the line as well, telling the state court of appeals that long-term demand for oil is questionable.

Enbridge says it's not.

"It's like an occupation," LaDuke said. "They come up here, and they're shoving a pipe down our throat."

But Minnesotans for Line 3, a group that supports the project, says replacing the line ensures a safe reliable source of energy as we transition into a more green economy. They also say the project has created thousands of jobs.

Enbridge says it dramatically increases state tax revenues and is needed to maintain safety. It adds that the company is working with tribal communities in unprecedented ways - and moved the line off of the Leech Lake Reservation after negotiations.

It says reducing pipeline options forces energy to be transported in less efficient ways like railways or ships.

RELATED: Protesters Gather At Governor's Residence Over Line 3 Pipeline

Construction is set to rev back up on June 1, but the resistance doesn't take days off.

After a long day of fighting the fight, LaDuke winds down but doesn't let up.

"I have a right to. My people lived here for 10,000 years. I have a right to say this is a dumb idea," LaDuke said. "People say, who do you work for, I say I work for the swans, I work for Mother Earth."

The Minnesota Court of Appeals is expected to announce its ruling on the Commerce Department's appeal by June 21. The decision on the MPCA suit is expected in September.

Federal courts could also pause the project. There's a federal suit against the Army Corps of Engineers for approving a permit.

There are more protests planned for June 5-8 near Bemidji with public events on June 7 ahead of the Court of Appeals decision.

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