On 15 May, a woman met a pipeline worker at a bar in Minnesota and agreed to go 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 Violence Intervention Project (VIP) in Thief River Falls, who spoke to the woman on the phone. “It was very scary with those other men there. She said he had her in the bedroom and she couldn’t leave.” The woman finally got out of the house.
The Canadian company Enbridge is building the Line 3 oil pipeline through Minnesota, a $2.9bn project that replaces a corroded, leaking pipeline and increases its capacity from 390,000 to 760,000 barrels a day. The project has brought an influx of thousands of workers who are staying in hotels, campgrounds 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 of the proven link between employees working in extractive industries and increased sexual violence. Now their warnings have come true: two Line 3 contract workers were charged in a sex-trafficking sting, 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 about Line 3 workers harassing and assaulting women and girls who live in north-western Minnesota.
An Enbridge spokesperson, Michael Barnes, said it 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 trafficking charges were fired by the contractor. He also said before construction began, the company worked to raise awareness of human trafficking by partnering with contractors, tribes, local officials and Truckers Against Trafficking, which combats human trafficking.
After a lull in construction due to muddy spring conditions, workers are now returning to Minnesota. Enbridge’s CEO, Al Monaco, said Line 3 was on schedule to be completed by the end of the year, but Indigenous groups and environmentalists are attempting to stop the project through peaceful protest, divestment campaigns and court action.
Advocates warned of violence
In 2018, the state’s Public Utilities Commission (PUC) held hearings to decide whether to approve Line 3 permits. Sheila Lamb, an Ojibwe-Cherokee city councillor for Cloquet and member of the state’s Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women Task Force, testified that extractive industries were linked to human trafficking and disproportionate violence against Indigenous women.
“There is no way that Enbridge or the unions can monitor these workers 24/7 and hold their hands,” she said.
Before the PUC approved the pipeline, it acknowledged in its environmental impact statement that “the addition of a temporary, cash-rich workforce increases the likelihood that sex trafficking or sexual abuse will occur. Additionally, rural areas often do not have the resources necessary to detect and prevent these activities.” The PUC approved permits on the condition that the company create a public safety escrow fund so crisis centers could apply for funding to respond to anticipated violence.
Thousands of workers arrived in Minnesota in late November 2020. Gabrielle Congrave, north-west regional navigator for Support Within Reach, which helps survivors of sexual assault, said women in the small town of Gonvick, Clearwater county, told her that a surge of pipeline workers had arrived in town, and the workers were sexually harassing and following them in vehicles. Congrave said they were “creating an aura of intimidation toward women.”
Clearbrook-Gonvick police and the Clearwater county sheriff, Darin Halverson, said police had not received any reports of harassment or stalking this year.
Johnson said VIP had heard reports ranging in severity from pipeline workers “grabbing buttocks and breasts”, harassing women who work at hotel bars, and following women, to more violent incidents. VIP serves five north-western Minnesota counties. Red Lake and Kittson county sheriffs said they had not had any reports of violence related to Line 3; the other counties did not reply to requests for comment.
In February, VIP applied for 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 at hotels, Johnson said.
The reimbursement was for the cost of transportation and hotel rooms for the women to get them to safety. However, the reimbursement request also says: “We are having challenges finding safe hotel rooms for clients because almost all of our hotels are filled to capacity with pipeliners.”
Johnson said VIP had responded to several other domestic assault and sexual assault incidents by pipeline workers. She shared a safe hotel receipt for one such domestic assault that occurred on 14 April. In another case, she said the center helped a woman who ended up in hospital after she was sexually assaulted at a hotel party attended by Line 3 workers.
VIP records also state that young daughters of VIP staff had received “sexually explicit drop texts” when they were at a gas station close to the Enbridge campground in Thief River Falls. Johnson said the girls were minors, and the texts asked if they liked older men, and invited them to party at a camper van.
In February, police set up a sting operation targeting buyers engaging in sex trafficking. They charged seven people after suspects responded to ads and spoke to an undercover officer posing as a 16-year-old girl, according to the Duluth News Tribune. Two of those charged were Line 3 workers from Missouri and Texas employed by the Enbridge subcontractor Precision Pipeline.
Susan Barney, an Ojibwe woman from Fond Du Lac Band of Lake Superior Chippewa, works for Precision Pipeline. She said the workforce was mostly male. She said most of her co-workers treated her “like family”, but one co-worker from Florida repeatedly made “vulgar, inappropriate remarks” to her.
Jason Goward, who is also from Fond Du Lac and used to work with Barney, confirmed her story. “She said, ‘he’s really creepy, but if I stand next to you, he doesn’t do it as much,'” Goward said.
Barney reported the harassment to her managers and they told her he was previously reported “for making rude remarks toward women”. She said management dealt with the issue swiftly and the harassment ended.
Other genders also report experiencing violence. A man, who did not want to be named, said he was assaulted by a Line 3 worker in a Bemidji bar in February. He said they were both intoxicated and engaged in a heated conversation that escalated when the pipeline worker hit him. “He beat me, he attacked me,” he said. “He kept hitting me over and over again, even though I wasn’t doing anything to hit him back.” He said his head and ribs hurt for weeks and he felt emotionally distressed.
“I’ve worked in that industry before, I’m not trying to demonize anyone for working and providing for 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 all received funding from the Enbridge account to prepare for violence and trafficking related to Line 3, according to records obtained by the Guardian.
Some expressed discomfort about requesting reimbursement. “It feels a lot like they’re pre-paying for trafficking our citizens,” said Lauren Rimestad, communications director at the Minnesota Coalition Against Sexual Assault. Johnson felt torn about requesting reimbursement, but said VIP ultimately decided, “It would be like leaving money on the table.”
Enbridge spokesperson 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 adds to the problem.
“There’s certainly connections between how we treat the land and how we treat the women,” said Nicole Matthews, executive director of the Minnesota Indian Women’s Sexual Assault Coalition.
She said the dynamic connects to the epidemic of Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women; more than 5,700 Native women have disappeared in the US and thousands more have been murdered or vanished in Canada. Matthews said the crisis is exacerbated by the fact that tribes do not have jurisdiction to prosecute non-Native offenders on tribal land.
The Link and 180 Degrees said they had not responded to trafficking associated with Line 3, but they expect to receive calls in the future. “We are getting prepared for that,” said Beth Holger, chief of the Link. Richard Coffey, program director of 180 Degrees, explained that buyers of sex trafficking are most often affluent white men who are away from home, and traffickers target those buyers, whether it’s the Super Bowl or pipeline work.
Johnson is concerned that students are out of school and working hospitality jobs, including at hotels frequented by pipeline workers. “We will constantly be on that squeaky hamster wheel of hearing about it after the fact,” she said.