U.S. State Department Complete Embarrassment at Tar Sands Public Meeting

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Crowd shot at the Alberta Clipper public meeting in Bemidji.

By Scott Russell

The U.S. State Department hosted a public meeting in Bemidji Tuesday to get public comments on a permit to increase the amount of tar sands piped through northern Minnesota. Instead of putting its best foot forward, the State Department offered a deadly mix of fear and indifference to Native and environmental voices.

Specifically, Enbridge needs State Department approval for the U.S.-Canada border pipeline crossing. This was the only public meeting the State Department will hold on this permit request. One would think they could have done a bang-up job.

They did not. They left people out in the cold too long, and created a process that failed to engage the public.

I was a part of two busloads of people who rode to Bemidji from the Twin Cities to participate in this event. There were about 80 of us from Honor the Earth, MN350, the Sierra Club, and other community groups and individuals.

We arrived early and met other allies for a “Solutions Summit” at the Rail River Folk School. Speakers included Linzey Ketchel, Leech Lake Watershed Association, and Winona LaDuke, Founder of Honor the Earth. They reminded us we have all the solutions we need right here in Minnesota and we do not need larger and larger pipelines.

Here is my experience and thoughts about the rest of the day from others I met.

Locked Doors: We marched about two miles from the school to the meeting at the Sanford Center. It was a cold walk, with temperatures in the high teens and 30 mph winds. We arrived before the 4:30 p.m. start time. They would not let us in early to warm up. Jingle Dancers and singers performed in the cold and kept our spirits high.

High Security and Long Lines in the Cold:  Once the doors opened, some people still waited more than another half hour to get inside. Security set up metal detectors right inside the front door. While hundreds of people wanted to get in, they only had two screening stations. They moved very slowly. (It would have been easy for them to set up the machines further inside the hall so people could have waited inside.)

Here is some participant feedback.

“It sucked,” said Sharon Coombs of Shoreview. “It was dangerously cold. It seemed like they could have made some accommodation so we could wait in the building. It was demeaning,” she said. “I expect our government to be smarter and a little more respectful of citizens.”

Anna Gambucci of St. Paul said she was stopped by the security screener and told she could not bring her water inside (just like airport security). She went outside, tossed her water, and got back in line. She was again confronted by security who told her that she already had been told she couldn’t bring her water bottle in. (More extreme than airport security.) Gambucci tossed the bottle in the garbage and dug it out when she left, she said.

Security didn’t want people coming in with bags or purses, either. Dan La Vigne of the Twin Cities said there was an old lady next to him who had her medicines in a bag. Eventually, they had her leave the bag by the door. “I didn’t like the security,” La Vigne said. “You get the impression they wanted to make it inconvenient.”

Personally, I was outside in line for a long time and there was confusion and anxiety about what people could bring in. People were running back to cars and buses trying to unload items. I was standing near a woman who had diapers in her bag. Someone (who already been rejected by security) told her no bags were allowed. Last I saw her, she was trying to figure out if she could take the diapers out of the bag and carry them in by hand.

I am not sure why the level of fear was so high. Whatever it was, it says a lot about how the State Department views those opposed to this pipeline. And it set a bad tone for the evening.

No Public Process: Once inside and thawed out, there was no opportunity to testify in a public format. We entered a large room with circular tables in the middle and a number of information stations around the walls. State Department representatives were at the stations to answer individual questions, but there was no State Department official with any decision-making power to listen to the public.

The State Department offered three ways to comment. You could hand-write your comments on a sheet of paper and stuff them in a cardboard box. You could type your comments at one of two computer stations. Or you could go into a private area and have your comments transcribed by a stenographer. (Note: These are things we could have done from home.)

Frank Bibeau, an attorney and a member of White Earth, summed it up best: “It was the opposite of a public hearing – because no one could hear what the public was saying.”

Laurie Turman from Grand Rapids called the process “iffy.” “We are not voicing our opinions and questions out loud,” she said. “We don’t get to hear other people. I think we missed out.”

Isabelle Watson, one of the co-chairs of the Sierra Club North Star Chapter’s Overcoming Oil and Tar Sands Committee, called the process “absurd and ridiculous. … It is the most disengaging format they could have come up with.”

It also begs the question: if this was the process, why such tight security? It was not like Secretary of State Rex Tillerson was there.

Lesson Learned: Confronted with a truly flawed process, many of the Native American participants set up their own public hearing, creating a circle and speaking their truths. The jingle dress dancers danced around the room. 

Rene Ann of Native Lives Matter said she was frustrated with the process. “We expected more,” she said. However, she added, “We occupied the space and made it our own.”

In a cavernous room with no microphone, it was difficult to hear them. Many people were lost in side conversations or working on their written comments. Many of the white participants (me included) were not paying much attention to the Native-led event.

And this was my learning. I was discouraged by the poor process. Other than writing my comment sheet, I sat and wondered if the trip had been worth it — and disengaged.

On the bus home, Gambucci critiqued the evening and offered a different approach. The State Department’s process was set up to disempower, she said. She challenged people to do a better job next time of following the lead of the Native communities, which created a more engaged public process. More people could have brought their chairs to the circle and joined in, a sign of defiance to the process that was offered.

Post Script: It would be great if the State Department shocked us all and rejected the border crossing permit. (I am not hopeful.) As Winona LaDuke said as she left the event: “If you do an EIS (Environmental Impact Statement), sometimes the answer is ‘No Build.’ It is time to start exercising that option.”

Even if the permit is approved, we still have avenues at the Minnesota Public Utilities Commission to stop tar sands pipeline expansion in Minnesota.

For more information on tar sands oil, click here.

If you are interested in the work of the Sierra Club’s local chapter on this issue, click on the Beyond Oil and Tar Sands Committee, or contact staff member Natalie Cook at natalie.cook@sierraclub.org

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