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If 50 Tons of Pipe Falls From a Crane, Does Anyone See It?

A landowner-turned-activist in Michigan captures a pipeline construction accident on video, and fearing damage, gets Enbridge to replace the pipe.

Jan 21, 2014

The view from David Gallagher's porch window should have been bucolic on that January evening. In the distance, the setting sun was bouncing off fresh snow that blanketed old farmland surrounding his Ceresco, Mich. home.

But Gallagher could see only the workers from Enbridge Inc., the Canadian energy company that had been constructing a crude oil pipeline 12 feet from his house for the past seven months.

Although he had grown used to the crew and the rumblings of their bulldozers and backhoes, Gallagher's fears about the safety of laying pipe so close to his home never left him. And on Jan. 8, as he watched a crane lift a piece of 50-ton pipe longer than a football field, a shot of alarm raced through his body. The crane suddenly began to tip over, and the massive pipe that was dangling between the machine's claws plunged into a trench before the crane toppled on its side.

If the pipe had been any closer, "it would've smashed into our sunroom," Gallagher said. "It was a holy shit moment."

Gallagher darted outside and held up his phone to record the scene. A half a dozen workers rushed to pull the shaken operator, who wasn't injured, out of the cabin. A second crane lifted the machine upright and took it away.  

In less than an hour, the 36-inch diameter pipe was buried in the trench as if nothing happened.

The incident gained local attention after video was posted on YouTube, and it was the latest evidence that Gallagher and his fellow landowners-turned-activists won't stop exposing and denouncing Enbridge until they get their safety concerns heard and addressed. The project will replace the company's 46-year-old oil pipeline 6B. Enbridge has faced intense scrutiny and skepticism over the line because the company was responsible for a catastrophic rupture on 6B in 2010, which sent more than a million gallons of heavy crude oil into Michigan's Kalamazoo River.

As night fell Gallagher couldn't stop thinking about the pipe hitting the ground.

He was convinced that Enbridge didn't properly inspect it after the accident and worried that the pipe's coating may have been damaged or chipped, which could increase the chances of corrosion and possible rupture. Gallagher called Enbridge's corporate office in the morning to express his concerns. He also reported the incident to the federal Pipeline Hazardous Materials Administration (PHMSA), which regulates most of the nation's pipelines. "The pipeline is just so close to my home," Gallagher said.

Damon Hill, a spokesman for the agency, said that PHMSA contacted Enbridge after Gallagher phoned. "We raised our concerns about possible integrity issues with the pipeline," he said. The agency suggested that Enbridge remove the section from the ditch and replace it with new pipe.

Enbridge agreed to do so "to dispel any concerns or doubts about the integrity and safety of the piece," according to Enbridge spokeswoman Jennifer Smith—but not because the pipe was compromised. She said workers immediately lifted the pipe out of the trench when it fell so three on-site inspectors could check for dents or dings. There was no damage, Smith said.

On Jan. 11, the company had new pipe delivered to Gallagher's property. An inspector from PHMSA's regional office last week supervised the installation and welding of the replacement piece, which is now finished.

Gallagher said his mistrust of Enbridge is building not ebbing. "What if I wasn't there to witness it?" he said of the crane incident. "That's a scary concept there."

And while he is pleased that a PHMSA inspector supervised the reinstallation on his property, he doesn't feel it was his job to notify the agency. And he is worried that much of Enbridge's pipeline, which crosses thousands of properties in Michigan, won't receive the same scrutiny.

"They [PHMSA] don't inspect every inch of every pipe that goes in," he said.

Pipeline to House: How Close is Too Close?

The $1.3 billion replacement pipeline that Enbridge is building will eventually carry 21 million gallons of heavy crude oil per day from Griffith, Ind., across southern Michigan to refineries in Ontario, Canada. To accommodate the new line, Enbridge added about 50 feet to its existing right of way. That expansion put the homes of Gallagher and hundreds of other Michigan property owners closer to the new pipeline's path

Michigan state regulators don't 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." PHMSA relies mainly on the states to provide specific rules addressing pipeline locations.

When Enbridge launched the new 6B project, several landowners refused to sell their strips of land, and the company exercised its legal right to condemn the property. Gallagher, who lives in the house his in-laws built in 1973, said he asked Enbridge early on to buy his home. He said the company didn't respond to his request.

Gallagher ultimately accepted a $16,000 "close proximity” fee, on top of $6,400 for the land that Enbridge took.

Enbridge construction equipment arrived on his seven-acre property in late July. By November, the company had excavated a trench and workers began installing the steel sheet walls used to keep dirt from caving in while pipe is laid. The work was so close that "they had to angle their equipment so that it wouldn't hit our home," Gallagher said. His two dogs nearly barked their throats raw during the commotion, he said, so he put them up in a kennel for a few days.

In early January, Enbridge began laying pipe. Gallagher said that on some days, the construction has cut off the path from his house to his wood shop in the barn out back, where he builds cabinets and furniture for his one-man carpentry business. On a few occasions, he's had to postpone contracting jobs because he couldn't get his tools out of the barn.

The Jan. 8 crane episode was the latest in a string of disruptions, he said. "I'm depressed. ... I'm not normally an angry person, but in a sense it's kind of changed my personality."

Construction on the pipeline in Calhoun County, where Gallagher lives, should wrap up in the next few weeks. The rest of the project won't be finished until mid-2014, Enbridge's Smith said. The replacement pipeline is almost a year behind schedule, due in part to delays in environmental approvals and in obtaining needed permits.

Gallagher isn't expecting his life to return to normal anytime soon. In the next week or so, Enbridge will conduct hydrostatic testing on the section near his property. The test involves pumping water through the pipeline at high pressure to check for leaks.

Marty Burke of Howell, Mich., whose house is just seven feet from the new 6B line, was in his basement last fall when Enbridge conducted a hydrostatic test on the section that crosses his land. He told InsideClimate News that he could feel the vibrations and hear the whooshing of water through the pipe.

"Standing there with the whirling sound and the pulsing of the liquid going through the pipe makes you realize just how close it is," he said. "It's frightening."

Back in Ceresco, Enbridge will also have to restore Gallagher's property to its original state. The company won't start that work until "spring conditions allow," Smith said. Separately, a structural engineer will have to assess Gallagher's home to make sure the shaking during construction didn't damage the foundation. If it has, his house could undergo weeks or months of repairs.

"They should've just bought our home," Gallagher said in frustration. "Then they could've bulldozed it."

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