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Toxic Tar Sands: Minnesota

Elizabeth Sherman
Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe, Minnesota

Elizabeth Sherman

Photo: Hillary Barron

Elizabeth Sherman has been fighting contamination from tar sands oil pipelines for years. Known in her community by her Ojibwe name, "Blue Sky Woman," Sherman is a member of the Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe in Minnesota.

The Leech Lake Ojibwe have always lived on the piney marshes of their ancestral lands. It is no surprise they value water deeply on their reservation in the land of "ten thousand lakes." "Between our lakes and our wetlands, the Leech Lake Reservation is 70 percent water. Our greatest concern is our water," says Sherman.

Enbridge Inc., the largest tar sands pipeline operator in Canada (and the company behind the massive Kalamazoo pipeline spill in Michigan in 2010), pumps its toxic products south directly through Leech Lake lands. Over the last several years, oil spills from pipelines owned or operated by Enbridge have leaked multiple times, spilling toxic crude from Alberta's tar sands and threatening the community's water.

Some of Enbridge's pipes have been in the ground for 60 years, and tribal members tell of corroded pipes protruding from the ground, cracked and seeping oil. In 2010, three spills occurred in four months within a 35-mile radius of the tribal boundaries, all from pipelines owned by Enbridge. One of the spills was not detected until the oil-coated marsh accidentally caught on fire; tribal members had to alert the company. It remains unclear how much oil leaked into the surrounding water.

Sherman says these are just the most recent events in an ongoing environmental tragedy for her community.

"Our greatest concern is our water."
Traditional areas for gathering sage on the reservation have been destroyed by pipelines. For centuries, the Ojibwe have relied on these sacred medicinal plants, but pipelines buried directly in critical wetlands have all but eliminated them from the local ecosystem. Testing by the tribal resource management division revealed contaminants in wells on the reservation, and confirmed a large crude oil plume stretching towards homes in the community. The two major aquifers in Leech Lake are part of a watershed that feeds the headwaters of the Mississippi River.

"This isn't just a Leech Lake issue," Sherman explains. "We are holders of the headwaters of the Mississippi. If our Mississippi River headwaters are polluted by tar sands, everything in the river's path down to the Gulf of Mexico will be contaminated."

Sherman is now leading a legal battle against the Enbridge pipeline running through the Leech Lake Reservation. She and three other plaintiffs have asked for a temporary restraining order to stop construction of a new tar sands pipeline through their land. Despite the plans for new construction, there is still no remediation plan for the existing spills that have polluted the tribe's water. Their lawsuit remains in appeals status.

Meanwhile, Sherman says, "The oil is still there, the water is still contaminated, and the damage is still done."

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