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Exploiting More Than the Land: Sex Violence Linked to Enbridge Line 3 Pipeliners

“[These companies are] here in our communities, extracting from the land, extracting from our women and just leaving us to deal with the aftermath, and they’re screaming about us.”

One toxic byproduct of pipeline construction has largely escaped public scrutiny: sexual assaults linked to Line 3 workers.,Jared Rodriguez / Truthout

As the national fight over Enbridge’s 337-mile Line 3 tar sands pipeline in Minnesota continues to intensify amid protests by Indigenous Water Protectors, one toxic byproduct of the pipeline’s construction has largely escaped public scrutiny: sexual assaults and harassment incidents linked to Line 3 workers.

The devastating trend has long plagued U.S. fossil fuel and extraction projects, especially those adjacent to tribal reservations, and helps fuel a much larger human rights crisis in which thousands of Indigenous women and girls are killed or disappeared at shocking rates each year, often after having been trafficked, sexually assaulted or harassed.

Staffers and advocates with shelters in northern Minnesota told Truthout they are handling more cases of sexual assault directly linked to contractors building Line 3, as well as servicing an increase in calls and reports of sexual harassment at local businesses since construction started on the Canadian company’s $2.6 billion, 36-inch replacement and expansion line in December. 

One former pipeline worker told Truthout he witnessed a culture of rampant misogyny and sexual harassment at the Line 3 sites he worked last year, despite Enbridge’s mandatory human trafficking and sexual harassment trainings.

In fact, Enbridge is reimbursing at least one nonprofit shelter for the costs associated with housing victims allegedly assaulted by pipeliners. State permits for the project stipulated that Enbridge had to create a public safety fund to cover certain costs associated with policing pipeline protests as well as anti-human trafficking efforts in the areas surrounding the construction and campgrounds where pipeline workers stay.

According to state documents obtained by the Minnesota Reformer, the Violence Intervention Project in Thief River Falls requested roughly $250 for hotel rooms for at least two women who say they were assaulted by pipeline workers. The shelter places survivors in hotels when its emergency shelter is full. But finding lodging has been increasingly difficult as pipeliners book up local rooms, says Violence Intervention Project Co-Executive Director Amy Johnson. The cost of hotel rooms has doubled in recent months.

“We knew that once the work started in earnest, we were going to be challenged, but we were beyond challenged with COVID making us have to have only one person per room, or one family per room,” Johnson tells Truthout. “That’s the challenge too, when you have an escrow account and you have competitive funds. And then, there’s no hotel rooms and nothing for long-term or more sustainable anti-oppression or more awareness things. There’s been a lot of shelter shuffling, which is just terrible, so unfair.”

Johnson says it was not the shelter’s intention to make the cases public when they requested reimbursement from the Enbridge fund, and that the shelter received additional housing grants from Minnesota Department of Health and at least one other foundation. She declined to confirm the exact number of cases the shelter is handling, and whether or not the survivors were Ojibwe women, citing concerns over potentially identifying survivors who live in a smaller, rural area.

Even shelters that aren’t seeing increases in specific cases linked to Line 3 are worried about housing domestic violence and assault survivors in hotels booked up by pipeliners or those adjacent to Enbridge camps. Jennifer Davey, house manager at the American Indian Community Housing Organization, says the organization is running all its shelter services out of local hotels because of the pandemic and is watching out for the survivors they service in those rooms.

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In a statement to Truthout, Enbridge said it is taking the claims made in Violence Intervention Project’s request for compensation very seriously and is investigating the allegations. State permits required the company to develop a human trafficking prevention plan in conjunction with government officials and tribes. Enbridge insists all workers go through mandatory human trafficking awareness training, and that the company has a zero-tolerance policy for anyone engaging in exploitation or abuse.

Still, Intervention Project’s Johnson says partner organizations and shelters in the area, as well as adjacent reservations including the Fond du Lac Band and the White Earth and Red Lake Nations are dealing with the same predatory behavior they did about a decade ago when Enbridge was constructing its Alberta Clipper project through the state.

In addition to the assaults, shelter staffers say their daughters have reported being sexually harassed at a gas station near an Enbridge man camp, receiving sexually explicit messages via the AirDrop feature on their phones, which allows users to send files and messages anonymously if bluetooth is activated. According to the shelter’s request for reimbursement, a local restaurant has also moved women workers to the kitchen to avoid harassment from men.

Johnson says AirDrop is quickly becoming one of the more popular ways pipeliners seek to exploit and attempt to groom local, often Indigenous women and youth. “They are the ones that you’re not going to see in the news. You’re not going to see them on police reports. It doesn’t get charged. It’s maddening. Harm is done, sometimes extensive harm, and then you end up with, a year or two years later, people disclosing [an assault],” Johnson tells Truthout.

She says Enbridge and a contractor building the line, Michels Corporation, initially reached out to the shelter with a gift, and that there was “good will,” early on, but that Intervention Project staffers haven’t directly communicated much with the companies since then. Instead, they’ve worked more closely with the state’s Public Utilities Commission and Bureau of Criminal Apprehension (BCA) in applying for the grant from Enbridge’s mandated public safety fund.

The increase in sexual assault cases comes on the heels of a sting operation led by the BCA, the Tribes United Against Sex Trafficking task force and the Itasca County Sheriff’s Office last month in which two pipeline workers were arrested for soliciting sex in Itasca County — one of whom, Matthew T. Hall of Texas, faces a felony charge of solicitation of a person believed to be a minor.

The two men arrested in the recent sting worked for the Eau Claire, Wisconsin-based Precision Pipeline, one of Enbridge’s primary contractors on Line 3. Precision told the StarTribune the two men were immediately fired when the company learned of their arrests. “We remain steadfast in … our zero tolerance for those who seek to deprive others of their fundamental freedoms and human rights is at the core of our organization,” the company said.

Enbridge likewise says it has “zero tolerance for illegal and exploitive behavior,” and that, “Such behaviors from anyone associated with this project will not be tolerated and are immediate grounds for dismissal.” But one former pipeliner tells Truthout misogyny and sexual harassment were not only tolerated at the Line 3 construction sites but were endemic during the time he worked as an oiler-spotter for contractors Precision Pipeline and Northern Clearing in 2020.

Fond du Lac Band member Jason Goward told Truthout many of his former co-workers made sexual “jokes” at work sites, and one in particular made comments “about hookers” at a Line 3 site just north of the reservation in Floodwood that were so lewd, he had to walk away from the conversation. “It’s not cool. They think it’s funny and cute,” he says. “I’m pretty sure if they’re that way on the job, then they’re that way out in public too on their time off.”

It gets worse: Goward says a younger Fond du Lac Band woman working as an oiler-spotter sought him out for protection against another, older co-worker who was making her uncomfortable with his sexual advances. “She was like, ‘He kind of creeps me out,’ and she walked over by me and said, ‘Maybe he won’t come around and be as creepy,’ and he wasn’t.”

Goward says Enbridge could work harder to make sure its sexual harassment and trafficking trainings are taken more seriously. Each training is “a 20-minute video, is all it is, no test, no nothing. It’s not even a training; it’s just an awareness video…. They just put a video in and just breeze right on over it,” he says.

After seeing Line 3’s toxic exploitation of both the land and of tribal peoples up close, Goward walked off the job and joined his fellow tribe members in protesting against it. He had an epiphany, he says, after witnessing safety and harassment issues up close and after being inspired by Fond du Lac activists like Taysha Martineau, who founded Camp Migizi, a recently opened space near the reservation for Water Protectors engaging in ongoing nonviolent direct actions to delay construction.

Martineau helped create one of the Enbridge training videos Goward watched, and has been one of the strongest voices opposing the pipeline. Last month, more than 50 Water Protectors from the camp she helped set up occupied a pipeline easement while two people locked themselves to an excavator, temporarily shutting down the work site. So far, 130 Water Protectors face criminal charges for their roles in actions against Line 3.

In addition to helping organize the rolling blockades, Martineau tells Truthout she is also working to arm young women from the reservation with tasers and pepper spray through the group Gitchigumi Scouts, which patrols and searches for missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls.

She and other tribal activists like Mysti Babineau, a member of the Red Lake Nation and climate justice organizer with MN350, have long warned the project would lead to an increase in human trafficking and violence targeting Ojibwe women.

Even state regulators warned of the possibility of increased sexual violence in the pipeline’s environmental impact statement, citing a 2016 report from the National Congress of American Indians Policy Research Center connecting an influx of temporary workers to an increase in sex trafficking of Indigenous people. “The addition of a temporary, cash-rich workforce increases the likelihood that sex trafficking or sexual abuse will occur,” the statement reads. Enbridge, however, denies the connection.

Babineau says she grew up seeing the consequences to communities when pipeliners set up camps. “I’ve lived in these communities when these workers come through to do their maintenance,” she says. “I remember being told I can’t go out by myself and especially don’t go drive anywhere at night and don’t go to the bars. I’ve lived with this, and that’s the thing people don’t realize is, they have these workers coming through with this money, and as we’ve seen, the sex traffickers follow these men. It’s a business model.”

The trend isn’t exclusive to Minnesota. The Sovereign Bodies Institute tracks cases of missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls (MMIWG) and maps industry man camps. The Institute documented 411 MMIWG cases in the Dakotas, Montana and Nebraska, and found that 10 percent of cases occurred in counties along the Keystone XL pipeline’s proposed route. An additional 10 percent of cases occurred in counties directly adjacent to the proposed route, totaling to 31 areas in which MMIWG and the proposed pipeline route intersect.

On a wider scale, the Urban Indian Health Institute identified 506 cases of MMIWG across 71 U.S. cities in 2018. Twenty-five percent of the cases the Institute tracked were missing person cases, 56 percent were murder cases, and 19 percent of cases had an unknown status.

In the U.S., one in three Indigenous women are raped or experience an attempted rape during their lives, with most assaults perpetrated by non-Natives, according to Justice Department statistics. (The true numbers, though, are likely much higher, since most people who are sexually assaulted don’t report their assault.) Justice Department research also shows that in some counties consisting of primarily tribal lands, women are 10 times as likely to be murdered as the national average.

The connection between extractive industries, sex trafficking and MMIWG has also been documented by the United Nations Human Rights Council and in a 2015 State Department report. The link is so well established that the Canadian National Inquiry on MMIWG has called on governments to evaluate, approve, and/or monitor development projects to complete gender-based socioeconomic impact assessments on all proposed projects.

The recent assault cases linked to Line 3 add to the pressure building on the Biden administration to take action on the pipeline. Last week, a coalition of more than 370 environmental and tribal rights organizations demanded President Joe Biden immediately halt construction on Line 3. The administration, so far, however, is staying mum.

“[Biden] needs to the right thing. He can’t pay us lip service. He has an opportunity on the largest scale to start rebuilding those relationships with Indigenous nations,” MN350’s Babineau says. “[These companies are] here in our communities, extracting from the land, extracting from our women and just leaving us to deal with the aftermath, and they’re screaming about us.”