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Angry Michigan Residents Fight Uneven Battle Against Pipeline Project on Their Land

A 2010 oil pipeline spill contaminated Michigan’s Kalamazoo River. Now the line is being replaced, raising the ire of landowners along the route.

Sep 12, 2012
Landowner Carol Brimhall

The notice that arrived at Debbie and David Hense's home last September didn't seem especially alarming. Enbridge Inc. was going to replace Line 6B, the oil pipeline that leaked more than a million gallons of heavy crude into Michigan's Kalamazoo River in 2010. Since 6B runs through the Henses' 22-acre property near Fenton, Mich., some of the construction would be done there.

What the Henses didn't know, however, was that Enbridge intended to take an additional swath of their land for the pipeline—and there was little they or any of the other landowners who lived along the 210-mile route could do to stop it.

In addition to the existing 60-foot easement Enbridge already has through the Henses' property, the company wants another 25 feet—about the width of a two-lane highway—for the new pipeline. It also wants a temporary 60-foot easement for a work area.

For the Henses, this means the loss of a century-old stand of trees. In Oceola Township, Beth Duman will lose part of her back deck. In the town of Howell, Peter Baldwin will lose a section of the nature preserve he has nurtured for decades.

Today the Henses and other angry residents have become unlikely activists, determined to at least have a voice in the $1.3 billion replacement project.

6B replacement project map

Click here for a large version of the map.

In July a lawsuit was filed in a Michigan appeals court on behalf of property owners along the first phase of the project, where work has already begun. Five landowners filed the lawsuit anonymously because they fear retaliation in their negotiations with Enbridge. They're asking that approval for the project be revoked because, among other things, the notice they received from the Michigan Public Service Commission didn't tell them that Enbridge wanted more of their land.

More problems are brewing along phase two. Michigan's Public Service Commission had been expected to approve that segment in August. But the commission agreed to delay its decision until early next year, to give landowners more time to prepare for the hearing. One of the landowners, Jeff Axt, has founded a nonprofit called Protect Our Land And Rights (POLAR) to help with legal expenses. Opposition also is growing along the 60 miles of 6B that pass through Indiana.

Enbridge, Canada's largest transporter of crude oil, says replacing 6B with a parallel pipeline is "absolutely critical to the Michigan and U.S. refining industry." The line opened in 1969 and is part of Enbridge's Lakehead system, which delivers heavy Canadian crude oil to the United States and Ontario, Canada. Because the diameter of the new 6B will be bigger, Enbridge will be able to nearly double the amount of oil it can transport to U.S. refineries.

A recent investigation by InsideClimate News into the 2010 spill found that in the years leading up to the accident, federal regulators repeatedly cited Enbridge for corrosion problems on 6B. Enbridge spokesman Larry Springer said the new pipeline will be thicker, will be fitted with "enhanced" leak detection systems and will have computer assisted programs that constantly monitor the line.

"Enbridge uses thoroughly tested steel pipe that meets or exceeds all applicable standards and regulatory guidelines for quality and safety," Springer said in emailed responses to questions about the replacement project.

Springer downplayed the opposition the project faces.

"While there has been recent publicity and activity by special interest groups, most who live and work along the pipeline are not opposed to Enbridge's plans to replace Line 6B," he said. "While the media may choose to focus on controversial situations, Enbridge's actions show that we deal openly and honestly with all stakeholders, including landowners and local governments."

Springer declined to say how many property owners have not reached an agreement with the company or how many condemnation cases Enbridge has filed.

Resistance to the project has been so great that at one point Enbridge hired guards armed with semi-automatic pistols to stand watch near the backyards of recalcitrant farmers. The Alberta, Canada-based company also briefly contracted with the Livingston County Sheriff's Department to use off-duty deputies for security patrols, a tactic one local official called "a form of intimidation."

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