Jack Lessenberry, Dome Magazine, August 24 2012
BRANDON TOWNSHIP, Mich. — Katy Bodenmiller wasn’t planning on becoming an activist. She thinks of herself as simply, “a freelance graphic designer who loves to garden.” Nor did she pay a great deal of attention two years ago when an oil pipeline belonging to an Alberta-based company called Enbridge burst near Marshall, MI sending an estimated 843,444 gallons of thick, tar-sands-crude oil into the Kalamazoo River.
But a part of that pipeline goes through her backyard in rural Brandon Township, which sits atop the northern border of Oakland County, closer to Flint than Detroit. This year she found out that Enbridge Energy Partners— the U.S. affiliate of the Canadian multinational corporation—was going to replace old pipe put in around 1968, just shortly before Bodenmiller was born. “That’s when we entered this story,” she said. “To be more precise, when we learned that Enbridge refuses to pay fair replacement value for trees and plants, we got mad. The fact that we had to fight just to get a portion of the appraised replacement value was frustrating and demoralizing.”
So, Bodenmiller got energized. The more she learned, the angrier she got, as did her husband Jeff Insko, who teaches American Literature at nearby Oakland University. She began to reach out to people. Upon discovering that some of her neighbors shared similar experiences, she and her husband started a blog: http://grangehallpress.com/Enbridgeblog/ ,“…in an effort to help connect neighbor to neighbor and community to community.”
Then, last month when the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) released a massive report on the causes of the Kalamazoo River spill, she was horrified to learn that the government report made it clear that both the rupture—and the fact that so much oil got into the water—was a disaster caused from start to finish by “pervasive organizational failures at Enbridge.” Despite being warned of major cracks in the line at least five years before the accident, the company had done nothing. When the pipe did rupture it triggered alarms but Control Center staff failed to recognize what they were and energetically pumped hundreds of thousands of gallons into the pipe for hours.
The spill wasn’t detected for 17 hours, and apparently not until after people complained about the smell. “The inadequacy of Enbridge’s facility response plan to ensure adequate training,” ended up creating a worst-case scenario, the NTSB concluded. The cost of the cleanup thus far exceeds $767 million, and is still ongoing. Nevertheless, Enbridge received approval from the Michigan Public Service Commission (MPSC) this spring to replace the old pipe with a newer one that a company spokesman says will be safer, wider in some places, and carry more oil.
Joe Martucci, a Michigan-based spokesman for Enbridge, says that safety conditions have been addressed. But Bodenmiller believes there is plenty of reason to be uneasy. She worries that the government‘s safety standards, “are outdated and substandard.” She points out that the NTSB report notes that “contributing to the accident was the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration’s (PHMSA) weak regulation … as well as PHMSA’s ineffective oversight of pipeline integrity management programs, control center procedures and public awareness.”
That drove Bodenmiller to contact her elected officials, but she received little response. Most ignored her. U.S. Sen. Debbie Stabenow’s office sent her a form letter, but it referenced the entirely different Keystone pipeline project (they have since apologized). So, she moved to the local level, where she found a sympathetic ear in Kathy Thurman, Brandon Township supervisor. On Monday, Township Trustees unanimously adopted a resolution calling on Enbridge to take steps ranging from increasing the thickness of the pipeline walls to paying the Township for using its roads. They also asked for a guarantee that the old pipeline, which is being left in the ground, will not be used again to carry, “any kind of environmentally hazardous product.”
Reached shortly before the vote, Martucci (the Enbridge spokesman) said there were no plans to reuse the old pipeline. As for the other items the Township asked for, Martucci said Enbridge would look at them on a case-by-case basis. In the past, the company has indicated that they think the MPSC approval gave them blanket approval to do what they need to do to install the new pipeline. But Enbridge has also run into difficulty elsewhere in the state. In Livingston County—not far from Lansing—Debora and David Hense took the company to court after Enbridge started clearing trees on their land despite failing to reach an agreement on compensation. The company had a legal easement, but needs more space to do the work to lay the larger pipe. They were told to confine their activities to the current easement until a court hearing in September.
For now, Bodenmiller feels good; especially since her Township Trustees said that they intend to contact other affected communities and encourage them to pass similar resolutions. She notes that, “…there’s also this little matter of Enbridge’s own Social Responsibility Policy. They claim to help support the quality of life in their host communities.”
One of her goals is to remind them of that.
Veteran journalist and national Emmy Award winner Jack Lessenberry teaches at Wayne State University, serves as Michigan Radio’s senior political analyst and writes regularly for several publications. He also serves as The Toledo Blade’s writing coach and ombudsman and is host of the weekly television show Deadline Now on WGTE-TV in Toledo.