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Michigan Landowners Quietly Rack Up Court Victories in Pipeline Fight With Enbridge

The fierce resistance and legal delays Enbridge is encountering over Line 6B are extraordinary, says expert. But landowners still face an uphill battle.

Oct 3, 2012
Trees on Debbie Hense's land cut down by Enbridge.

Ken Weathers doesn't see himself in the role of David versus the giant Enbridge Inc.

Yet he is.

The 66-year-old Detroit Edison retiree is among a handful of Michigan residents who have won court victories in the last few weeks against Canada's biggest pipeline company over attempts to condemn their land for an oil pipeline, called Line 6B. 

Enbridge is beginning to replace the aging pipeline and has filed condemnation cases against nearly 80 landowners along the pipe's first 50 miles. The legal action is a last resort for Enbridge and follows months of often contentious and unsuccessful negotiations with landowners to reach an agreement for the land.

The company also is the target of a pair lawsuits by groups determined to shut down the entire 210-mile 6B replacement project.

The fierce resistance and legal delays Enbridge is encountering over Line 6B are extraordinary, said Carl Weimer, executive director of the Pipeline Safety Trust, a nonprofit watchdog organization based in Bellingham, Wash.

"Historically pipeline companies have had a much easier time getting what they wanted," he said.

Weimer attributes the unprecedented opposition to landowners becoming more savvy and more aware of the potential consequences in the wake of the 2010 spill on Line 6B, one of the biggest oil disasters in U.S. history.

"People are starting to say, 'Wait a minute what does this mean?'" Weimer said. "They are reading the fine print more closely. They are more attuned to what it means to have a pipeline in their backyard."

Line 6B, which was opened in 1969, ruptured in July 2010 near the town of Marshall, Mich. and gushed more than 1 million gallons of diluted bitumen, or dilbit, into the Kalamazoo River. The spilled resulted in a two-year long closure of a 34-mile stretch of the river; a $809 million cleanup bill; and a $3.7 million fine.

The $1.3 billion replacement project, which was expected to go online in September 2013, will nearly double the capacity of Line 6B that begins in Griffith, Ind., crosses northwestern Indiana, bisects southern Michigan and ends in Ontario, Canada.

Enbridge officials did not provide a representative to respond to specific questions, but instead issued a general statement via email.

"We do not take this legal route lightly, but believe it is in the public interest to expediently move forward with improving our existing Line 6B," according to an excerpt of the statement from company spokeswoman Terri Larson.

Larson said Enbridge has reached agreements with most property owners without the need for litigation, though she did not provide those specific numbers.

Landowner Challenges About Getting Answers

With the landowner awakening, Enbridge has encountered resistance from people like Weathers and Debbie Hense, who became a local celebrity after she plunked down a folding chair on her property to stop Enbridge from cutting down a swath of her trees in the path of Line 6B before it had legal permission.

Kim Savage, one of the attorneys representing Weathers and more than a dozen other landowners, said people understand the need for a new pipeline but object to the unsympathetic way Enbridge has gone about dealing with them and the evasive answers the company has given to questions.

"Enbridge simply needs to be more honest and forthcoming," she said.

The legal challenges are about getting answers and holding Enbridge to ethical standards, Savage said.

Landowners want to know what Enbridge will send though Line 6B, they want to know if the old pipeline will be reopened and they want to know how the new pipeline will be safer.

Unanswered questions weigh on Ken Weathers, the retired Ortonville resident who became the first landowner to beat Enbridge in court on Sept. 19.

He's afraid that he might lose his house under a provision of Michigan law that gives lenders the right to demand a mortgage be immediately paid in full if changes are made to the property that lessen its value.

A second pipeline, he fears, could trigger that clause. He doesn't know the answer to that question and it worries him.

"They might just say this pipeline makes your house worthless and we want our money," he said.

Although Weathers won, he said he understands Enbridge will probably get what it wants in the end. But if nothing else it was a moral victory for Weathers and others facing the loss of land they treasure.

"I sure hope now Enbridge has a better understanding of the personal anxiety they have been causing people," Weathers said. "It's the principle of the thing."

Weathers, who says he is pro-business—and without being asked said he doesn't believe in global warming—has lived on the five acres in since 1988. It's where he raised his family and where he dotes on a collection of restored cars.

Weathers and the two other landowners won courtroom victories on a very subtle point about what can and cannot be transported in Line 6B. It will likely represent only a temporary setback for Enbridge.

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