On May 15, a woman met an oil pipeline worker in a Minnesota bar and agreed to come to his house, but when they arrived, there were four other people there and she felt uncomfortable.
“She wanted to leave, she tried to leave,” said Amy Johnson, executive director of the Thief River Falls Violence Intervention Project (VIP), who spoke to the woman by phone. “It was very scary with those other men there. She said he had her in the bedroom and that she couldn’t leave. ”The woman finally left the house.
Canadian company Enbridge is building the Line 3 pipeline through Minnesota, a $ 2.9 billion project that replaces a corroded and leaking pipeline and increases its capacity from 390,000 to 760,000 barrels per day. The project has brought in an influx of thousands of workers staying in hotels, camps, and rental housing along the pipeline route, often in small towns like Thief River Falls and on or near native reservations.
Before Minnesota approved the pipeline, violence prevention advocates warned state officials about the proven link between employees working in the extractive industries and the rise in sexual violence. Now his warnings have come true: Two Line 3 contract workers have been charged with sex trafficking and crisis centers told The Guardian they are responding to reports of harassment and assault by Line 3 workers. Johnson said VIP, a crisis center for survivors of violence, has received more than 40 reports of Line 3 workers harassing and assaulting women and girls living in northwest Minnesota.
Enbridge spokesman Michael Barnes said he has “zero tolerance for illegal behavior by anyone associated with our company or its projects,” and said anyone caught or arrested would be fired. Barnes said the two workers facing traffic charges were fired by the contractor. He also said that before construction began, the company worked to raise awareness of human trafficking by partnering with contractors, tribes, local officials and anti-trafficking truckers, which combat human trafficking.
After a break in construction due to spring’s muddy conditions, workers are now returning to Minnesota. Head of Enbridge Al Monaco saying Line 3 is scheduled to be completed by the end of the year, but indigenous and environmental groups are trying to stop the project through peaceful protests, divestment campaigns and legal actions.
Advocates warned of violence
In 2018, the state Public Utilities Commission (PUC) held hearings to decide whether to approve Line 3 permits. Sheila Lamb, Councilor for Cloquet in Ojibwe-Cherokee and a member of the state Missing and Murdered Indian Women’s Task Force , testified that the extractive industries were linked to human trafficking and disproportionate violence against indigenous women.
“There is no way Enbridge or the unions can monitor these workers 24/7 and hold their hands,” he said.
Before the PUC approved the pipeline, it recognized in its environmental impact statement that “the addition of a cash-rich temporary workforce increases the likelihood of sex trafficking or sexual abuse occurring. Furthermore, rural areas often do not have the necessary resources to detect and prevent these activities ”. The PUC approved the permits on the condition that the company create a public guarantee fund so that crisis centers can request funds to respond to anticipated violence.
Thousands of workers arrived in Minnesota in late November 2020. Gabrielle Congrave, a Northwest Regional Navigator for Support Within Reach, which helps survivors of sexual assault, said women in the small town of Gonvick, Clearwater County, They said that a wave of pipeline workers had reached the city and workers were sexually harassing them and following them in vehicles. Congrave said they were “creating an aura of intimidation towards women.”
Clearbrook-Gonvick police and Clearwater County Sheriff Darin Halverson said police had not received any reports of harassment or stalking this year.
Johnson said VIP had heard reports that ranged in severity, from pipeline workers “grabbing buttocks and breasts,” harassing women working in hotel bars and following women, to more violent incidents. VIP serves five counties in Northwest Minnesota. Red Lake and Kittson county sheriffs said they had received no reports of violence related to Line 3; the other counties did not respond to requests for comment.
In February, VIP sought reimbursement of funds from the Enbridge account after responding to three assaults by Line 3 workers, according to records Johnson shared with The Guardian. In one case, Johnson said a pipeline worker had assaulted his partner who had traveled with him to Minnesota from another state. In the other two incidents, Line 3 workers sexually assaulted women in hotels, Johnson said.
The reimbursement was for the cost of transportation and hotel rooms for the women to take them to safety. However, the reimbursement request also says: “We have a hard time finding safe hotel rooms for clients because almost all of our hotels are filled with gas pipelines.”
Johnson said VIP had responded to several other incidents of domestic assault and sexual assault by pipeline workers. She shared a secure hotel receipt for one of those domestic assaults that occurred on April 14. In another case, he said the center helped a woman who ended up in the hospital after being sexually assaulted at a hotel party attended by Line 3 workers.
The VIP records also indicate that the young daughters of the VIP staff had received “sexually explicit text messages” when they were at a gas station near Enbridge. campground at Thief River Falls. Johnson said the girls were underage, and the text messages asked them if they liked older men and invited them to a party in a caravan.
In February, the police organized a sting operation targeting buyers engaged in sex trafficking. They charged seven people after the suspects responded to the ads and spoke with an undercover officer posing as a 16-year-old girl, according to the Duluth News Tribune. Two of the defendants were Missouri and Texas Line 3 workers employed by the Enbridge Precision Pipeline subcontractor.
Susan Barney, an Ojibwe woman with the Fond Du Lac Band of Lake Superior Chippewa, works for Precision Pipeline. She said the workforce is overwhelmingly male. She said that most of her co-workers treated her “like family,” but a Florida coworker repeatedly made “vulgar and inappropriate comments.”
Jason Goward, who is also from Fond Du Lac and used to work with Barney, confirmed his story. “She said, ‘He’s really creepy, but if I stand next to you, he doesn’t do it that much,'” Goward said.
Barney reported the harassment to his managers, and they told him they had previously reported him “for making rude comments towards women.” He said management resolved the issue quickly and the harassment ended.
Other genders also report experiencing violence. A man, who did not want to be identified, said he was assaulted by a Line 3 worker at a bar in Bemidji in February. He said they were both intoxicated and engaged in a heated conversation that escalated when the pipe worker struck him. “He hit me, he attacked me,” he said. “He hit me over and over, even though I wasn’t doing anything to hit him back.” He said his head and ribs ached for weeks and he felt emotionally distressed.
“I have worked in that industry before, I am not trying to demonize anyone for working and supporting their family, but unsolicited violence is not good,” he said.
Preparing for more reports
Minnesota organizations 180 Degrees, The Link, Support Within Reach and VIP received funds from the Enbridge account to prepare for violence and trafficking related to Line 3, according to records obtained by The Guardian.
Some expressed discomfort at requesting a refund. “It feels like they’re paying upfront to traffic our citizens,” said Lauren Rimestad, communications director for the Minnesota Coalition Against Sexual Assault. Johnson was heartbroken to request a refund, but said VIP ultimately decided: “It would be like leaving money on the table.”
Enbridge spokesman Barnes said exploitation and human trafficking have a long history in Minnesota communities. Several anti-trafficking organizations echoed that statement, but said the influx of workers exacerbates the problem.
“There are certainly connections between how we treat the land and how we treat women,” said Nicole Matthews, executive director of the Minnesota Coalition on Sexual Assault of Indigenous Women.
He said that the dynamics is connected with the epidemic of disappeared and murdered indigenous women; more than 5,700 Native women have disappeared in the United States and thousands more have been killed or disappeared in Canada. Matthews said the crisis is compounded by the fact that tribes do not have jurisdiction to prosecute non-native criminals on tribal lands.
The Link and 180 Degrees said they had not responded to traffic associated with Line 3, but expect to receive calls in the future. “We’re preparing for that,” said Beth Holger, Link’s boss. Richard Coffey, program director for 180 Degrees, explained that sex trafficking buyers are typically wealthy white males who are away from home, and the traffickers target those buyers, whether in the Super Bowl or in work-in-progress.
Johnson worries that students won’t go to school and work hospitality jobs, even in hotels frequented by pipeline workers. “We will constantly be on that squeaky hamster wheel hearing about it after the fact,” he said.
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism