Sovereign Science

Instead of relying on governments, Indigenous scientists and allies gather water quality data themselves.

When Enbridge released between 6,000 and 9,000 gallons of drilling fluid within wetlands bordering the Mississippi River on June 25, the lack of clear and timely communication between the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency (MPCA) and the local community confirmed what many Indigenous people and Line 3 protestors already knew — that depending on one another, rather than the governing agency, was their best hope to access information about their community’s water in the event of crisis.

Keshia DeFreece Lawrence, a Ramapough Lenape Munsee environmental political scientist based in Connecticut, lived in Line 3 resistance camps in Minnesota for two weeks last summer and again in November.

Prompted by the June spill, DeFreece Lawrence founded Sovereign Science: a network of Indigenous people and allies who perform water quality tests across Turtle Island (North America) to create a set of “baselines,” including soil and air quality and plant nutrient levels.

“The lack of prior informed consent for activity on our lands means that in terms of monitoring, we only know ecocide now,” she says.

Sovereign Science is working toward a less disaster-focused monitoring approach by encouraging collection from spiritually or personally significant sites as well as sites of ecocide. Ultimately, DeFreece Lawrence “seeks to build a sovereign community of people who view themselves as a part of the spectrum of the natural world.”

People from diverse backgrounds and many locations are invited to join Sovereign Science. Participants need access to a cell phone to record coordinates and clean containers to collect water. After signing up with a location in mind, DeFreece Lawrence coordinates with individuals to determine a collection method and assist participants through the collection steps. Water samples are processed by DeFreece Lawrence and her colleague, a doctoral candidate studying water quality in the Great Lakes at Guelph University in Ontario. Once sufficient data is collected for a territory or otherwise-determined geographic area, DeFreece Lawrence and her team create publicly available reports illustrating aquatic health.

DeFreece Lawrence hopes to gain funding to disseminate full test kits for easier data collection. “It is very simple equipment and testing,” she says, noting that these experiments can be run with young students. “It is just a matter of access.”

Until the project receives funding, DeFreece Lawrence is traveling to testing locations herself. “If there is a location that I can get to within a two- to four-day period, I am doing it,” she said while traveling through Six Nations of the Grand River territory in Ontario.

The long-term goal is to create a map of water qualities across Turtle Island, including collectors’ ancestral and personal stories about the water bodies they engaged with. DeFreece Lawrence, who holds a master’s in international law and is currently working on her tribal law degree, hopes to see “Indigenous communities, tribal lawyers, and others use this data in creating a legal precedent against corporations exploiting natural resources and violating national and international Indigenous human rights.”

DeFreece Lawrence conducts a field iron reagent test showing high levels of iron near a frac-out site at a Line 3 Mississippi River crossing near Bemidji.

In a future that promises immense climate change, DeFreece Lawrence emphasizes the importance of transparency in scientific research and the need for environmental literacy redefined through Indigenous knowledge.

Delayed Accountability

According to the Sierra Club, “the Minnesota Public Utilities Commission (PUC) allowed Enbridge to select, train, and pay for the ‘Independent Environmental Monitors’ working on behalf of the MPCA and DNR to monitor Line 3 construction.” Nearly half of these monitors — 12 of 25 — were past Enbridge employees who, the Sierra Club writes, “failed to alert state authorities” when construction drilled deeper than approved and burst through an artesian aquifer cap, releasing more than 24 million gallons of water in January 2021. The Department of Natural Resources was not alerted of the breach until the following June.

Not only did the PUC fail to ensure responsible environmental safety management, DeFreece Lawrence and one of her associates — Dr. Christy Dolph, a research scientist in the University of Minnesota’s Department of Ecology, Evolution and Behavior — say the MPCA failed to supply timely and detailed safety reports to the public despite multiple requests from Indigenous leaders for clear information. “The agencies continue to share almost no information with us about their process for investigation or accountability,” says Dolph.

One month after the June 25 release, 32 senators and representatives addressed a letter to the MPCA, citing concern that spills during the “severe drought and excessive heat” might hinder the ability of water bodies to “effectively dilute harmful chemicals and excessive sediment” used in the drilling process. They demanded the MPCA release data on the spills.

A list of 28 drilling fluid releases during Line 3 construction between June 6 and August 5, ranging in amount from 10 to 9,000 gallons, was published by the MPCA on August 9. A comprehensive report of damage to each ecosystem — including a plan of enforcement action against Enbridge in response to violation of the MPCA’s 401 Water Quality Certification — has yet to be released as of February 2022.

In response to a request to comment on the report’s timeline, the MPCA stated: “Once our investigation is complete, the MPCA will publicly release its comprehensive findings, corrective actions required or taken and monetary penalties. Foremost, the MPCA believes any polluter needs to be held accountable, and the release of drilling mud into a waterway is a violation of the 401 certification.”

Who Decides What Is Toxic?

In the meantime, state officials are asking water protectors for their footage of the spills to fill information gaps “They rely on Enbridge to supply,” says photographer and videographer Ron Turney.

“We sounded the alarm that night of July 20. I posted the footage [of frac-outs] and the next day MPCA tweeted that ‘A lot of misinformation is being shared on social about potential frac-outs,’” says Turney. “Now they are asking us for our data and footage, after they tried to discredit and criminalize us.”

The MPCA now lists four drilling fluid releases taking place on July 20, two of which occurred within wetlands.

“The MPCA has met several times with citizen activists and organizations to better understand their data and evidence,” the agency said in a statement to Minnesota Women’s Press.


The fundamental disagreement between Enbridge, the MPCA, and water protectors about what constitutes toxicity is what makes water protectors doubtful that action will be taken in the event of a more dangerous spill.

Enbridge lists the horizontal directional drilling fluid ingredients released into waterways as “nontoxic.” Manufacturer safety data sheets for Power Pac-L and sodium bentonite — both used in this drilling method — note that these products should be prevented “from entering sewers, waterways, or low areas.” Bentonite is a fine sediment that can clog gills and suffocate aquatic life such as mussels, fish, and insects if released in large quantities. In drought conditions, when ecosystems have reduced capacity to flush out pollutants, spillage may smother flora and harm fauna, regardless of whether or not spillage contains chemicals listed as “toxic.”

An Ancient Reaction

Thus, DeFreece Lawrence’s Sovereign Science initiative does not rely on information from agencies, but returns “autonomy to the First Peoples and first stewards of the environment.”

Keshia DeFreece Lawrence. Photo
Donisio Burgos

Their first report, “Enbridge Ecocide: Minnesota Line 3,” tells a story of floodplain movement, water chemistry, and possible solutions for a healthier ecosystem. Together with Dolph and analyst Laura Triplet, DeFreece Lawrence has compiled a baseline image of what the soil and water look like at and upstream of an area where three frac-outs have been identified near the Mississippi headwaters. Her analysis of the area affected by the spill finds deadly levels of iron, aspects of drill mud, and other unknown toxins present in water. To counteract toxins, the scientists suggest repairing the river’s soil base using compost and manure, which have regulatory effects and high levels of nitrogen.

“Sovereign Science represents an intentional way to think about science work as a project that is rooted in a different cultural paradigm of protection, care, longevity, survival, and justice,” says Dolph. “[It] provides people with the knowledge they need to do caring, protecting work.”

“Indigenous people and our knowledge are not something of the past. We are present,” says DeFreece Lawrence. “These resistance camps and frontlines are not happening by coincidence; they are reactions of defense to things immediately happening in the area [and] an ancient reaction that we feel through intergenerational trauma and ecological grief.”

To join Sovereign Science’s work and conduct testing: