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Americans Finding Themselves Powerless to Stop Pipeline Companies From Taking Their Land

Unable to deny right of way for new Enbridge pipeline in Michigan, homeowners see their American dream overtaken 'by an invading army' on their property.

Sep 16, 2013

The distant rumbling starts about the time David Gallagher pours his first cup of coffee in the morning.

It's a signal that work crews from Enbridge Inc. are beginning another day of construction on an underground pipeline that will someday carry 21 million gallons of heavy crude oil a day just 14 feet from his Ceresco, Mich. home.

By the time Gallagher settles into his favorite chair and sets his cup on the living room table, the parade of bulldozers, backhoes and trucks is grinding past just a few feet from his picture windows. The trembling sets off little seismic waves in his coffee.

(Watch video: What It's Like Living Within Feet of a Pipeline's Construction)

Michigan, like almost every other state that is crisscrossed by oil pipelines, does not stipulate how much space should separate pipelines from houses. The state's Public Service Commission asks only that pipelines be "designed and routed in a reasonable manner."

The federal Pipeline Hazardous Materials Administration (PHMSA), which regulates most of the nation's pipelines, is no more specific. "Pipeline right-of-way must be selected to avoid, as far as practicable, areas containing private dwellings, industrial buildings, and places of public assembly," says a 74-word PHMSA directive, the only mention of keeping pipelines a safe distance from houses in tens of thousands of pages of regulations.

PHMSA relies on the states to provide specific rules addressing pipeline locations. Yet regulators throughout the country, including those in the five states that account for more than half the nation's 194,000 miles of oil pipelines, don't impose any restrictions of their own. Instead, they defer to the scant PHMSA standards, then proclaim they are in compliance with federal regulations.

The regulatory division between making sure a pipeline itself is safe and safely locating that pipeline leaves many troubling holes, said Richard Kuprewicz, president of the engineering consulting company Accufacts Inc. and an adviser to PHMSA.

"Clearly the pipeline safety regulations aren't adequate in this area and the siting regulations aren't adequate," Kuprewicz said. "It's a bad combination."

Without state or federal regulations to protect them, people who live along the 210-mile Michigan section of Enbridge's new pipeline have been left to plead with a company many say is indifferent to their concerns. The 36-inch diameter pipeline will run from Griffith, Ind. across southern Michigan to Sarnia, Ontario, Canada. It is replacing Enbridge's 44-year-old Line 6B, which ruptured near Marshall, Mich. in 2010, causing the largest inland oil spill in North American history. Line 6B was reopened a few months later, and the new, larger pipeline is being built alongside it. A natural gas pipeline owned by an Enbridge subsidiary is also buried in the right of way.

To accommodate the new, $1.3 billion pipeline, Enbridge added about 50 feet to its existing right of way. That put it on a collision course with landowners who have nurtured sprawling gardens, orchards and stands of trees more than a century old in what is now the pipeline's path. When people refused to sell their strip of land, Enbridge exercised its legal right to condemn the property. Although the owners are compensated, some still feel their rights have been violated.

A section of the new line already has been installed about 7 feet from Marty Burke's house in Howell, Mich.—so close that Enbridge used a special process to make sure his foundation didn't collapse.

"At every level of government I contacted, they all said they had no regulations or no authority to do anything," Burke said.

Enbridge took Burke's land though condemnation proceedings and he is waiting for a judge to determine how much Enbridge will pay for it. 

Beth Duman, who lives on five acres in Howell with her husband, Bob, said she hasn't had any peace since she learned more than a year ago that part of her back deck might be sliced off to accommodate the pipe's installation.

"We knew the pipeline was coming through so we had to make choices we thought best, none of them very good," said Duman, who has since reached a settlement with Enbridge. "Think of it like having an invading army come in and occupy your home. They have complete control."

When the Michigan Public Service Commission was debating whether to approve the new line, the commission staff urged Enbridge to try to reduce the pipeline's impact on houses and other structures.

In an environmental impact report Enbridge filed with the commission, it said it was considering rerouting the pipeline around approximately 30 houses, as well as a wetland, roads, railroad tracks and other types of buildings.

The plan didn't specify how Enbridge chose those houses or how it planned to deal with those homeowners. The three-member commission decided the path was "reasonable" and voted unanimously to approve it.

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