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Protesters ride against pipeline through Cass County

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BACKUS -- Critics of a proposed Sandpiper pipeline route that would cut through Cass County in north-central Minnesota gathered Monday to bring attention to their environmental concerns.

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The Sandpiper is an oil pipeline proposed by Enbridge Inc. to stretch 616 miles from near Tioga in western North Dakota to a terminal in Superior, Wis. The proposed route for the Sandpiper cuts through Cass County and crosses between Backus and Pine River following the right of way of a power line. The route also crosses the Pine River, and other water bodies and has attracted attention from groups such as Honor the Earth that maintain it is dangerous. The Minnesota Public Utilities Commission is evaluating the project and the proposed routes. The commission is expected to select alternate routes for consideration on July 24.

Winona LaDuke, a former running mate of one-time presidential candidate Ralph Nader, members of the Union Congregational Church of Hackensack, the Northwoods Unitarian Church of the Pine River and Brainerd Lakes Area, area lake associations, and the Honor the Earth Organization, a Native American-based organization, all attended the event, which started at the Backus Corner Store.

Demonstrators carried signs to share their cause with passing motorists as they waited to witness a horse ride roughly following the proposed pipeline route from Backus to Park Rapids. The signs read such things as "Put $ in renewables, not pipe dreams." The five riders were members of Honor the Earth.

The meeting was led by LaDuke, the Honor the Earth program director. LaDuke has been part of horse-riding demonstrations along other pipeline routes, including the Alberta Clipper route in September 2013. LaDuke said the ride was inspired by a spiritual dream.

"I started having this dream about riding my horses against the current of the oil, and it was on a pipeline," LaDuke said.

LaDuke said she would prefer to see no pipeline at all. She said the Sandpiper is a poor investment, because oil wells in North Dakota are a finite resource and once the oil there is gone, pipelines connecting the oilfields to refineries could be abandoned. Minnesota already has abandoned pipelines, and Enbridge has already announced the possibility of abandoning sections of an aging pipeline called "line 3."

Furthermore, LaDuke and others have argued that Minnesota's lakes area could be seriously threatened by an oil spill.

"We really need to protect these waters here, because the fact is that none of our communities are prepared for pipeline abandonment, and none of our communities and emergency responders are prepared for a spill, and one of the problems with this area is there is no access (to remote areas)," LaDuke said.

Enbridge officials did not immediately respond to a request for a statement in reaction to the protest.

Though Honor the Earth would like the Sandpiper to be completely denied, the group has joined concerned citizens, the Minnesota DNR and many others in submitting a proposed alternate route which addresses the problems they have identified, including proximity to water sources and accessibility issues.

Honor the Earth is submitting an alternate route along Interstate 29 in North Dakota and Interstate 94 through Minnesota.

"That takes it down to the Twin Cities and they can take it over to Chicago from there. Enbridge doesn't want that, but they have opportunity to do that," LaDuke said.

Enbridge has previously said that alternative is not viable because it does not get the oil to its Superior facility. From there, Enbridge could route the oil to multiple destinations.

The ride by Honor the Earth members is a prelude to a larger ride to begin Aug. 18, LaDuke's birthday. At that time, the group intends to travel near the pipeline route, stopping at communities along the way including Walker and Pine River.

"This is just like a little bit of a prelude or a prequel to get people to understand what we are trying to do," LaDuke said.

LaDuke used Pine River-Backus School as an example of a place where the group might stop to eat, play music and meet with area residents. More planning is needed before the larger ride can commence, however, because not all routes are convenient for riding horses. The group's ride along Highway 87 was made difficult by narrow shoulders, bodies of water and steep hills which meant the group had to travel certain portions of the trip by automobile with their horses in a trailer or risk riding in traffic. LaDuke is looking for area residents to help her plan a safer route for August.

"I need to have a few other people help us figure out the best route and the best places," LaDuke said. "Look at the map between Aitkin and Pine River, Pine River and Walker and find out which route is the best route (passing near the proposed pipeline route)."

LaDuke said they need a route with gravel roads, off-road paths or wide shoulders so the horses are not riding in traffic. The riders will be on horseback from East Lake on the Mille Lacs Reservation to Rice Lake in the White Earth Reservation taking breaks along the way at night to camp and meet with locals. Other riders are invited to join them for the full trip or for smaller parts.

LaDuke said they also need pastures where the horses can rest, eat and drink at night (they have portable fence) and spotters in front of the group and behind the group to slow down cars and help keep the riders safe.

The community of Backus is 40 miles northeast of Wadena.

More information can be found at www.honorearth.org/ and www.enbridge.com/SandpiperProject.aspx.

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