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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
(Page 2 of 5 )
Landowner Carol Brimhall

Jeffrey Insko, an American literature professor at Oakland University in Rochester, Mich., is so outraged about the company's "heavy-handedness" that he started the Line 6B Citizens' Blog. The pipeline crosses his two-acre property near Pontiac, Mich.

Some of Insko's anger is directed at public officials who he said have done little to protect the state's residents.

"We find it more than a little perplexing that Michigan—the state in which the most expensive inland oil spill in U.S. history occurred just two years ago—would be suffering from such a dearth of leadership," Insko said. "One would think, to the contrary, that politicians would be falling all over themselves to get tough with Enbridge, particularly after the release of the blistering NTSB report."

The National Transportation Safety Board report Insko referred to was released in July. It blasted Enbridge for a "complete breakdown of safety." Federal regulators imposed a record $3.7 million civil penalty on the company, which Enbridge paid yesterday.

Cleaning up the Michigan spill was especially difficult, InsideClimate News reported, because 6B carries dilbit, a mixture of heavy Canadian bitumen diluted with liquid chemicals, some of them toxic. When the pipeline split open near the town of Marshall, the bitumen began sinking to the bottom of the Kalamazoo River. Enbridge is still removing oil from the river more than two years later in a cleanup effort that so far totals $809 million.

One Family Fights Back

Insko has followed news of the spill and the cleanup with a mixture of anger and frustration. Still, like most landowners along the route, he grudgingly settled with Enbridge, rather than go through condemnation hearings he believed would be futile.

Enbridge's opening offer is usually $6,500 per acre according to attorney Kim Savage, who represents a number of landowners. The company negotiates separately for the land it needs for temporary workspace and for damages during construction.

No structures can be built and no trees planted on land Enbridge takes for its easement. Seasonal crops like hay are allowed, but if the company needs access to the land the crops can be removed and the owner paid market value.

The 60-foot work area reverts to the landowner when the project is complete. But during construction, Enbridge can clear it of all trees, crops or buildings. The company has said it will reseed workspace areas.

The Henses are among those who have rejected Enbridge's offers. Yet the company's workers showed up last month at the family's 22-acre property in Tryone Township, near Fenton, Mich. Debbie Hense, a chemist, got a panicked call at work from her 13-year-old son.

"Mom. Mom! They're cutting the trees!" he told her.

When Hense got home, a logging machine was on the disputed land, tearing away at a line of hickory, oak and cherry trees that she treasured. Some were 50 feet tall and 100 years old. She could hear the whine of blades cutting into the trunks.

"It was a terrible sound," she said. "I watched as the trees shook, cracked and then slowly fell over."

Hense got a restraining order that same day, temporarily barring Enbridge from working in the disputed area. That afternoon she positioned a folding chair in front of her remaining trees, just in case the workers came back. Before long, the 44-year-old mother of three was joined by about a dozen other people armed with their own lawn chairs. One came from Battle Creek, 100 miles away.

Two days later, Enbridge notified the Henses that it had begun condemnation proceedings for their land. The company also asked an appeals court judge to order the Henses to immediately allow tractors back onto the land, arguing that the couple was needlessly delaying the 6B project and jeopardizing oil deliveries to Midwestern and Canadian refineries. "The halting of the Project … will result in irreparable harm not only to Enbridge, but more importantly to the public at large because the replacement of Line 6B has been determined to be and is in the public's interest," Enbridge said in the complaint it filed.

The judge declined Enbridge's request and set a Sept. 25 court date to hear the Henses' request for a permanent injunction. Enbridge then asked the judge to require the Henses to post a $612,500 bond, so the company could recoup any loses created by the delay. The judge will address that request at the hearing.

The Henses' attorney, Chris Christenson, said Enbridge's conduct is vindictive.

"They want to make an example out of my client and send a message to any others who have not yet reached agreements that if they resist in any way they face the same treatment," Christenson said.

Enbridge spokesman Jason Manshum declined to talk about the company's dealings with the Henses, saying the company doesn't discuss individual cases.

"The Greater Good?"

Most of the people who are fighting the 6B project know they are unlikely to get it stopped.

"Without pipelines the energy supply complex would collapse," said Bruce Bullock, director of the Maguire Energy Institute at Southern Methodist University's Cox School of Business in Dallas. "How would goods get to market? What would happen to transportation? Commerce is dependent on gasoline."

Enbridge made that point in documents it filed with the Michigan Public Service Commission.

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