Michigan regulators agreed last week to allow Canadian pipeline operator Enbridge Inc. to replace a 160-mile segment of an aging line that in 2010 spilled more than a million gallons of crude oil.
The decision by the Michigan Public Service Commission disappointed local landowners who had hoped for more scrutiny and oversight of the project.
"I am concerned with the haste with which this project has proceeded," said Jeff Insko, an English professor at Michigan's Oakland University who started the Line 6B Citizens' Blog for concerned landowners. "It's been fast-tracked both by Enbridge and the regulatory body here in Michigan. And given Enbridge's history in our state, it seems to me prudence and caution ought to guide us, and they haven't."
The 2010 spill from Line 6B contaminated 36 miles of the Kalamazoo River and has been difficult to clean up. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency recently asked Enbridge to remove submerged oil from several miles of the riverbed, a task that Enbridge is resisting. The price tag for the cleanup has already reached $810 million, making it the most expensive oil pipeline spill in U.S. history.
Line 6B begins in Griffith, Ind. and passes through southwestern Michigan on its way to Sarnia, Ontario. Enbridge is building the new 285-mile pipeline next to the existing line. It will transport up to 21 million gallons of oil per day from Canada to refineries in the Midwest, nearly double the capacity of the current pipeline.
In its order, the Michigan Public Service Commission (MPSC) said it approved the project because Enbridge had demonstrated that the pipeline will "meet or exceed current safety and engineering standards," run along a "reasonable" route, and that there is a "public need" for the pipeline. Based on these findings, the MPSC didn't see a need to impose additional conditions or restrictions, said Commission spokeswoman Judy Palnau.
Enbridge spokesman Larry Springer said in an email that the company is pleased with the MPSC's approval and expects to begin construction in the spring.
Although Enbridge may need to negotiate settlements with individual landowners along the route, the MPSC's authorization was the last major hurdle facing the pipeline in Michigan.
Phase I of the project is already under construction and consists of one 50-mile segment and three 5-mile segments. Phase II, the section just approved by the MPSC, involves another 160 miles.
Indiana's portion of the pipeline is being replaced in a similarly piecemeal fashion. Enbridge is still obtaining easements and permits in Indiana and expects to start construction early this year.
"This replacement project will restore the ultimate capacity of the Line 6B pipeline to meet increasing demand for additional transportation capacity, which is largely driven by current and planned refinery upgrades and expansions in Michigan, Ohio and eastern Canada," Springer said.
Insko and other landowners don't necessarily oppose the pipeline—they say they just want Enbridge to take extra safety precautions and to treat landowners fairly. As InsideClimate News reported last year, landowners have gone to court to challenge Enbridge's easement contracts. They say Enbridge has intimidated local residents and offered inadequate compensation for damage and disruption caused by construction. In at least one case, the company began cutting trees on private property before the landowner had signed a contract.
Kim Savage, an attorney based near Lansing, said her firm has represented about 40 of the 500 landowners along a 50-mile section of the project during condemnation hearings. The use of eminent domain should be reserved as a last-minute resort for when negotiations fail, she said, yet landowners tell her that Enbridge's land agents routinely bring up the threat of condemnation during easement negotiations.
Savage once worked as an attorney for gas and electric utilities. At her old job, she said, it was a "terminable offense" to mention condemnation while negotiating for a voluntary easement. "The course Enbridge is taking is shocking, having worked on the other side," she said.
Springer, the Enbridge spokesman, said the company worked for more than a year to negotiate with Line 6B landowners for the use of their property.
"This negotiation process was successful in reaching mutually acceptable agreements with the vast majority of landowners," he said. "In a minority of cases, Enbridge made several attempts to negotiate in good faith but was forced to resort to the court process."
Enbridge also has come under fire for refusing to obey local ordinances on road and land restoration.
"We just want Enbridge to act in ways that live up to their good neighbor rhetoric," said Insko, who reluctantly signed an easement contract to avoid having his land seized through eminent domain. "Individual landowners unfortunately don't have the power to make that happen. They need the support of legislators and the state's regulatory agency."
Brandon Township, a community of 15,000, intervened last year in a landowner lawsuit that sought to force Enbridge to follow local ordinances. The township later reached an agreement with Enbridge outside of court.
Insko said no other township has come close to what Brandon has done in supporting landowners' concerns, and he's frustrated that Michigan officials haven't done more. "I've been calling for state legislators to speak out and take action for months, with no luck," he said.
"Enbridge's track record in Michigan has been literally disastrous," Cochran said in the statement.
"Rather than relaxing environmental regulations on corporations that pollute and fast-tracking projects for a company that has already irreparably damaged our pristine environment, we should be demanding tougher laws that hold big companies and special interests accountable," Segal said.
Neither Cochran nor Segal returned calls from InsideClimate News.
Insko said he welcomes the legislators' statements but wishes they had spoken up sooner. "This is the first time I can recall anybody saying a forceful statement in support of us and not Enbridge."