This just in: the government of British Columbia has rejected Enbridge’s proposal for its Northern Gateway project. The bottom line, according to the B.C. Environment Minister: “Our questions were not satisfactorily answered [by Enbridge] during these hearings.”
One can’t help but wonder how the Line 6B “replacement” project might have been different had Enbridge been subjected to the same level of scrutiny here in the U.S. and Michigan.
Honestly, we thought, after all this time, that things might change. We thought– despite the available evidence— that Enbridge might learn from its mistakes. We thought–we hoped– that landowners along phase two might benefit from the experiences of and all the noise made by those of us on phase one. We thought, at the very least, that Enbridge– so very thin-skinned and so desperately image-conscious— might want the tales of bad behavior and the criticisms to just stop and, therefore, that they would begin to conduct themselves in ways that comport with all of their good neighbor rhetoric.
Looks like we were wrong. Over the next several days, we’ll bring you three ugly stories of landowners along phase two, stories that are no less troubling because they sound so terribly familiar to those of us on phase one. Not surprisingly, these stories, like countless others we’ve heard over the past year, mainly have to do with the unreliability, untrustworthiness, and unprofessionalism of Enbridge’s right of way agents. This has long been a problem, perhaps the primary source of landowner unhappiness and dissatisfaction. There’s just no getting around the fact that Enbridge’s land agents (not every single one, of course; there are surely some good ones; as we’ve noted in the past, during construction and restoration, ours was very responsive) have done the company and landowners a terrible disservice. Their actions– misinforming, failing to return phone calls, communicating sporadically or poorly, dismissing legitimate concerns, using the threat of condemnation as a cudgel to beat landowners into submission (even before, as in our case, the state had granted Enbridge that right), treating people disrespectfully– have gone a long way toward breeding an atmosphere of mistrust and contention between Enbridge and landowners along the pipeline route. It makes one pine for the fictional land agent conjured up by Enbridge’s public relations machine.
But while a lot of blame for this breakdown of relations can be laid at the feet of Enbridge’s land agents (we’re not letting them off the hook), it’s Enbridge that bears ultimate responsibility for all of this (and this is why, we repeat once more, we have NEVER ONCE called out a land agent by name– though we could; nor have we told even the tiniest fraction of stories about their bad behavior that we’ve heard over the past year or so). Most of those agents aren’t really even Enbridge employees; they’re contractors– (which is an interesting story in itself; in fact, we know the land agent company that has contracted with Enbridge and have been looking into this; we hope to post more about it at a later date). When we, along with Kim Savage, told some of these stories of land agent behavior to the members of the Michigan chapter of the International Right of Way Association a few months back, they were shocked and appalled, nearly incredulous.
So why does this kind of land agent conduct seem to be continuing even today? After all, there are Enbridge employees who are (ostensibly) in charge of supervising those land agents (or so we think). And those supervisors surely know about the kinds of behavior we’re talking about. They have surely heard these stories by now, if not from this blog, then from plenty of other sources. Yet they appear not to want to hear it or do anything about it. At least that’s true in our experience: Mike Bradburn, Doug Aller, Mike Harris– all of them brushed us off, ignored our attempts to contact them; none have been willing to actually listen, take seriously, and respond forthrightly to landowner concerns about the people they supervise, then take action to correct these persistent problems, problems that have done nothing but alienate people, cause needless conflict and strife, and delay the timely completion of the project.
What’s more, all of this has led to a very strange situation in which, when things get particularly bad (or go public), people like Mark Curwin and Tom Hodge– people who have other jobs to do– have to step in and try to do the job that land agents should be doing: cultivating amicable relationships with landowners, addressing reasonable concerns, solving problems created by right of way agents. We saw this first hand, for instance, the night we met Tony Amico at a Brandon Township meeting. Honestly, if we were Curwin and Hodge, we’d be furious about this state of affairs; we’d be cracking heads over in the office responsible for land acquisitions and rights-of-way (and for all we know, maybe they have done just that; we haven’t got a clue what goes on behind the scenes).
But we have our doubts. One of the things we’ve learned after all these months, and we’ve discussed this before, is that Enbridge isn’t that good at being introspective, at taking a cold, sober look at their own conduct (and this despite their own stated corporate values), at being self-critical and making appropriate adjustments. That’s because to them, all of these are just p.r. problems, not systemic ones. So instead of altering their conduct, they tend to hunker down and get defensive. Or they just buy a new ad, send out a glossy new brochure, find someone compliant to help them polish their image. Or they deploy Jason Manshum or another one of their seemingly endless horde of spinmeisters.
The one thing they appear not to do– or so the stories we’ll bring you over the next few days– is the one thing that would actually solve all of these problems: treat landowners with respect and consideration; just stop giving us stories to tell.
Early last week, we kicked off our latest series— on our experience with IJNR Kalamazoo River Institute— by ruminating on the strange current state of Talmadge Creek and the Kalamazoo River. Yes, both are lovely and seemingly very clean. Objectively speaking, it’s hard to say that Enbridge did not clean them up well (you can do a lot with a billion dollars)– although there’s much more to be done (so says the EPA). Of course, in our view, the cleanup effort is not really cause for any great celebration or any reason to go heaping praise on Enbridge. After all, if you break something that doesn’t belong to you, you should be obligated to fix it– and not congratulated for doing so.
But as we said in that previous post, what was most striking to us about the creek and the river was, first, the way in which the history of the spill appears to have been erased. The truth about what happened there in 2010 is evident only through a series of barely perceptible signs, all but unreadable to the average visitor. This, in our view, is a travesty. If there’s a sign commemorating the site where the Jeffery family once lived, there also ought to be a sign explaining why they don’t live there anymore. There ought to be signs and plaques up and down the river telling future generations of river-goers exactly what happened to the ecosystem and to the lives of all those decent, ordinary people– the Deb Millers and Susan Connollys. The future citizens of Michigan ought to know about the mess. They ought to know the truth– that people’s lives were disrupted, in some cases ruined, that their health was affected, that flora and fauna were destroyed– not just the clean up, and the greenwashing.
The other thing that struck us about the current state of the river and the creek– and it’s related to the first– is their “hyperreal” quality. The pre-2010 river and creek are gone and a new river and a new creek have taken their place, rivers and creeks re-made and, to a large extent, operated by Enbridge. Public, natural resource have become (to a degree) semi-private, artificial creations. And we just find that a little, um, creepy.
So why are we rehashing this today, having just written about it a few days ago? Well, because no sooner had we posted about this than we stumbled upon a perfect illustration of our point. Let us introduce you to David Jephson:
Jephson is the deputy fire chief in Terrace, British Columbia up in Canada– which is one of the (many) places where Enbridge has run into a bit of opposition with their massive Northern Gateway project (sort of Canada’s Keystone XL). Earlier this month, Enbridge invited a number of B.C. officials to a tour of Marshall and the Kalamazoo River so that the officials could observe first-hand just how marvelous and squeaky-clean it is now. This, evidently, is Enbridge’s way of persuading Canadian officials of the company’s all-around wonderfulness and putting to rest any apprehensions the officials might have about a Marshall-like spill in northern B.C.
Well, deputy chief Jephson was mighty impressed, as he told the CBC in a radio interview (he has also spoken to a local newspaper). For one thing, Jephson seems to think it’s meaningful– evidence that it was no big deal?– that some random people the delegation met in Detroit didn’t know very much about the spill. But the most extraordinary thing Jephson says is “you wouldn’t know there was a spill there unless you were told”– as if the erasure of the history of that spill and the devastation it caused were a good thing, as if the view and experience, and history of the river and the spill they were getting from Enbridge were accurate, transparent, and honest– rather than carefully orchestrated. The level of gullibility on display by Jephson is truly extraordinary. In fact, Enbridge is so pleased with the things Jephson has been saying since the tour that they have posted a transcript of the radio interview on their website and appear to have adopted him as their new mascot– they’ve replaced poor Michael Milan!
But of course, few people really know what the tour Enbridge took Jephson on was really like, even though Jephson says it was a “fact finding trip”– and nobody other than Jephson appears to be talking We have no idea who the officials on the tour met and spoke with– and we’ve been trying to find out. As is typically the case with Enbridge, the tour, the information supplied by the tour, and information about the tour, all seem to have been very carefully controlled, even a little secretive. But you can be sure that the people on the tour certainly didn’t speak with any Enbridge critics. Nor do they appear to have met or spoken with any of the important scientists or organizations working on restoration (this according to our friend Beth Wallace, who also tried to find out). But you can bet that they talked to plenty of Enbridge’s deep pool of public relations message massagers.
This morning, we’re a little irritated. Remember that story about those disturbing piles of petroleum coke, a byproduct of the dilbit refining process, that we reported on a couple of months ago? Well, the New York Timesran a piece by reporter Ian Austen on the story just this week– and it’s getting a lot of play. It’s all over the web and social media. And of course, we think this is a very good thing. In fact, the more attention this gets the better. The last thing we want is to have that gunk spilling into the Detroit River. And a national discussion about the costs of using this filthy byproduct– what one expert in the article calls “the dirtiest residue from the dirtiest oil on earth”– is long overdue. So, three cheers for Ian Austen and the New York Times. Well, make that two cheers.
Why are we irritated? Two reasons:
First, because the main reason the story seems to be getting so much play– and perhaps a major reason why the Times picked it up in the first place (two months after the story broke here in Michigan)– is because the petcoke can now be linked to the Koch brothers, those wealthy conservative super-villains (to people on the left). Linking this story to the Kochs makes for some good outrage. Here’s how Austen frames his piece:
Detroit’s ever-growing black mountain is the unloved, unwanted and long overlooked byproduct of Canada’s oil sands boom.
And no one knows quite what to do about it, except Koch Carbon, which owns it.
The company is controlled by Charles and David Koch, wealthy industrialists who back a number of conservative and libertarian causes including activist groups that challenge the science behind climate change. The company sells the high-sulfur, high-carbon waste, usually overseas, where it is burned as fuel.
The coke comes from a refinery alongside the river owned by Marathon Petroleum, which has been there since 1930. But it began refining exports from the Canadian oil sands — and producing the waste that is sold to Koch — only in November.
But in our view, it really shouldn’t matter; it shouldn’t make it any more concerning to know that the Koch brothers own that stuff. We’d find those piles of black dust on the shores of the river alarming if they were owned by our own brothers. The fact that this story has to be shoe-horned into a familiar ideological narrative in order to get it on the national radar is, we confess, bothersome– irritating.
The second reason we’re irritated is because the Times piece never says how that stuff– or the stuff that makes that stuff– got to Detroit in the first place. Instead, it says only this:
An initial refining process known as coking, which releases the oil from the tarlike bitumen in the oil sands, also leaves the petroleum coke, of which Canada has 79.8 million tons stockpiled. Some is dumped in open-pit oil sands mines and tailing ponds in Alberta. Much is just piled up there.
Detroit’s pile will not be the only one. Canada’s efforts to sell more products derived from oil sands to the United States, which include transporting it through the proposed Keystone XL pipeline, have pulled more coking south to American refineries, creating more waste product here.
Marathon Petroleum’s plant in Detroit processes 28,000 barrels a day of the oil sands bitumen.
See what happened there? The Times went and pulled a Stabenow on its readers (if we may coin a phrase). That is, just at the moment when one might expect an explanation of how Enbridge’s Line 6B– the line that ruptured in Marshall in the worst inland oil spill in U.S. history– feeds diluted bitumen to that Marathon refinery, at that very moment, instead of rehearsing a bit of Enbridge history in Michigan and beyond, Austen turns to a discussion of… Keystone XL! Never mind that Enbridge, as we’ve said before, is quietly building its own KXL. Never mind that Marathon’s plant is about to increase production by more than half because of the” replacement” of Line 6B (thereby producing even more petroleum coke). To the Times, it’s as if Enbridge and Line 6B don’t exist. Once again, as with Senator Stabenow’s staff, Keystone appears to be the only game in town.
A couple of weeks back, we promised the launch of a new series about our experience tagging along with a pack of journalists brought together by the Institute for Journalism and Natural Resources. You really should check that link; we’re quite smitten with the work the Institute does. in our view, their model should be replicated across the country and we’re totally impressed with Dave Spratt and Adam Hinterthuer. Today, we’re happy to bring you the first installment on our day with them at their Kalamazoo River Institute.
Dave and Adam invited us, along with phase two landowner David Gallagher (we’ll more on his story in another installment), to speak to the journos about our experience with the Line 6B replacement. And one of the journalists, Mark Brooks from Earthgauge Radio up in Canada has posted audio of much of our remarks. Even better, Dave and Adam were gracious enough to let us tag along with the group for most of the day. Since this was, believe it or not, our first-ever trip to Marshall and the site of the “dilbit disaster,” we were lucky to have the NWF’s Beth Wallace as an escort. On our way to the first stop of the day– the spot where Talmadge Creek meets the Kalamazoo River– we got to see the creek for the very first time. Here it is, quite lovely:
This shot is about a mile downcreek from the rupture. The creek carried the oil, which spilled over the banks more than 10 feet on either side, another half mile to the Kalamazoo River, which is where we met up with the journalists for a canoe trip a couple of miles in length all the way to Ceresco Dam, a key cleanup site following the spill and still today. At the landing where we launched is a new park, created by Enbridge. It’s very nice, which seems like a wonderful thing until you learn that on the day of the spill, the site was home to the Jeffery family, who had been there for 53 years. The sign, which cheerfully notes that “in 2011, the property was converted into a public park to enhance the community’s experience on the Kalamazoo River,” is a disturbing example of historical erasure: it makes no mention of WHY the property “was converted” into a public park– because Enbridge’s decaying pipeline ruptured, dumping hundreds of thousands of gallons of diluted bitumen into the river and ruining the Jefferys’ property.
A bridge runs over the river at the park. If you look closely here, you can see a black line about a foot above the water; that line was left there by the oil, showing just how high the river was on the day of the spill. The line also serves, or se we thought, as another barely perceptible reminder of what happened in 2010. Of course, as with the plaque commemorating the Jeffrey property, one might never know that this is the site of one of the worst inland oil spills in U.S. history. The signs remain, but one needs an experienced semiotician to decipher them. (In our case, we had Beth Wallace and Jay Wesley of the Michigan Department of Natural Resources to give us the real story.)
And this is more or less the story of the Kalamazoo River as it currently exists. It has been scrubbed clean– washed, dredged, cleared, and restored. But it’s been scrubbed clean not just of dilbit (well, almost scrubbed clean of dilbit!). It’s also been scrubbed clean (again, almost) of why and how it was scrubbed clean. Because so much of the property along the river was purchased– by necessity– by Enbridge, there are no explicit references to the spill, its causes and its aftermath. That history is knowable only by subtle marks and traces, like the story the Jeffery family sign does not tell, like the black line left behind on the concrete bridge that only experts know about, Or by mile markers like the one below, which indicate the distance the oil flowed downriver (what do they signify to those who do not know the story of the spill?). Or by some Enbridge workers in orange vests doing who-knows-what at the river’s edge (this being a group of journalists, you can rest assured that they descended on those guys like a pack of wolves).
Just how clean has the Kalamazoo River been cleaned? Well, one experienced journalist-kayaker (not the person pictured: that’s Beth Wallace looking right at home kayaking) remarked upon how the river seemed to lack “structure.” That is, the farther you traveled along it, you had this odd feeling like the beauty of the river was somehow a little off, a little too neat, too tidy. There were no obstructions– no big rocks, no fallen trees, none of those things that a river just accumulates over the ages, the things that provide a habitat for all manner of critters: sunbathing spots for turtles, bivouacs for fish.
So what you come to realize is that the Kalamazoo River, although quite nice, is now a man-made river, an artificial river, the kind of river one might encounter at, say, Disneyland. Honestly, it put us in mind of some fancy French theorizing we read way back in graduate school. In the 1980s, a theorist by the name of Jean Baudrillard wrote a little book called Simulacra and Simulations (in French). Baudrillard’s idea was that the world we now inhabit (the “postmodern” world) is so full of copies and reproductions (you can walk the streets of New York in a Las Vegas casino; you can visit Paris by going to Disney in Florida) that we have not only lost the “real.” Reality itself now seems to imitate the copies of reality. As Baudrillard puts it, “The territory no longer precedes the map, nor does it survive it. It is nevertheless the map that precedes the territory—precession of simulacra—that engenders the territory.”
Take Talmadge Creek, for instance: one of the most striking things we learned on our trip was that in order to clean it up, Enbridge essentially had to destroy the creek. They excavated a swath thirty feet wide (the creek is maybe three or four feet wide)– creek bed, vegetation, everything. Then they basically recreated the creek. How? Well, apparently based on Google map images, making Talmadge Creek a creek that quite literally copies a map. This is a textbook example of what Baudrillard called the “hyperreal.” Talmadge Creek and the Kalamazoo River (a portion of it, anyway) are no longer “real” bodies of water. They are hyperreal. They are Enbridge’s recreations of bodies of water, corporation-created creeks and rivers that mimic real creeks and rivers. So when you walk along Talmadge Creek or you canoe the Kalamazoo, you are having an experience owned, operated, and created by Enbridge– whether you know it or not.
So while the river was, to the inexperienced eye, very clean, and while the canoe trip was quite pleasant on a beautiful May day, after thinking about all of this, after reminding ourselves of how the river came to be the river it is today, we still felt a little dirty.
A couple of weeks ago, we received a letter from our right of way agent announcing that he’s moving on to another job close to his home in Minnesota. As strange as it seems to say it, we’re actually sorry to see him go. The truth is that during the construction phase of the project, he was very responsive to us– far more so, from what we’ve heard from many other landowners, than most other land agents. We’ve been sort of lucky in this regard.
In fact, this week we learned just how true that it. Our agent left us with a couple of new land agent contacts for the restoration phase. We called one of them to check on the status of restoration and because we wanted to ensure that our topsoil situation would be handled properly. The agent was not responsive. He seemed annoyed by the call, didn’t have any information for us regarding when we could expect restoration to begin on our property, and was disinclined to even bother looking into our situation. So you can imagine our surprise when, the very next day, crews arrived to begin restoring our property.
So we called him again. Same response: he just wasn’t interested. He didn’t even want to come out and talk with us as we asked. Frankly, he was so unhelpful and apparently annoyed that we were even calling him, that we’re tempted to do something we’ve never done before and name him by name. But we won’t. (However, if you’re on phase one and you want to know who NEVER to call, send me a note and I’ll tell you who to avoid.)
The good news is that the supervisor of the restoration crew and the environmental inspector were both VERY helpful. We had satisfying conversations with both about the items on our line list and what we wanted to happen with restoration. And they appear to have made sure all of those things happened. As always, we took some photos:
The crew– here’s more good news: almost all of them, they told us, are from Michigan– worked remarkably fast. First, they moved our pile of timber (which they were supposed to have moved when the took the trees down).
Then they decompacted the subsoil (or so the environmental inspector said; we’re a little nervous about this).
Then– but only because I asked about it– they moved the big pile of wood chips we wanted saved. These chips were supposed to be hauled away when construction started. But since they didn’t take them away, we thought we’d keep them for mulch. Our line list said to move them to the back of the property, but the crew apparently didn’t know that (more on this in a minute).
But finally, they were placed in the right spot– it’s a much bigger pile than we thought!
We did get a couple of nice surprises. This daisy was on the edge of the temporary workspace– and survived.
Even better, buried underneath that pile of shredded wood were these bearded irises, white for lack of sunlight for months, but still alive. True survivors!
Crews aren’t quite finished yet, though things look a lot better now– no more orange fence! And we are (mostly) satisfied with this phase of restoration. Yet lots of questions marks about re-vegetaation remain. And there are some important lessons for those of you yet to go through this, whether you are on phase one or on phase two. For instance,
Be sure you touch base with your land agent before restoration begins on your property. Reiterate the items on your line list and mention any new concerns or instructions you might have.
The only downside to doing that, unfortunately, is that not all right of way agents are reliable or effective communicators. So no matter what you say, it might not make it to the construction crews. Therefore, if at all possible, try and find the restoration crew supervisor before they begin. Repeat your concerns to him.
Similarly, if you can find the environmental inspector– there should be one on your property at some point– seek her or him out and discuss any concerns.
We are fortunate to have the kinds of work schedules that allow us to be here to see what’s happening most of the time. We’re sure that’s not true for everyone. So this next piece of advice will be more difficult for some of you. Nevertheless, as best you can, BE VIGILANT. Check on what’s happening on your property. Watch when you can. As much as you are able, be your own inspector. The crews are generally good people (in our experience) and respectful. But communication from land agents isn’t always what it should be, so they might make unwitting mistakes. Watch for them.
Lastly, if you are on phase two and won’t experience restoration for a very long time, it’s not too early for you to be thinking about these things also– even if you don’t yet have an agreement with Enbridge. Think about what you want to happen on your property once the project is completed. Think about what is unique about your property and important to you and what measures should be taken to ensure that those concerns or unique features are appropriately addressed– then have those things put into your line list. If phase two readers would like it, we’d be happy to work up a separate post on the kinds of things one might have put on a construction line list.
In the meantime, we’ll continue to report on restoration matters as they progress. Please let us know what’s happening– good or bad– on your property as “clean up” continues.
Whew! The semester has finally ended, grades have been recorded, and we finally have a little time to post. To compensate for the recent lull, we’re pleased to announce the launch of a new series! This past Friday, we were fortunate to participate in an exciting program. The excellent people at the Institute for Journalism and Natural Resources were generous enough to let us tag along with their 16 (or so) Fellows– journalists from all over the country and Canada– for a portion of their Kalamazoo River Institute. Jennifer Bowman of the Battle Creek Enquirerhas a story on the Institute this morning.
Friday was devoted to the Marshall disaster and its aftermath. The journalists met and interviewed officials from the EPA, the Michigan DNR and DEQ, representatives from Enbridge (well, Jason Manshum), MSU scientist Steve Hamilton (who at this point probably knows more about cleaning up dilbit than anyone on the planet), our friends Beth Wallace from the NWF, Josh Mogerman from the NRDC (nice to finally meet him in person!), and Sue Connolly and Deb Miller. We also made new friends in fellow landowners (on phase 2) David and Karin Gallagher– we’ll bring you their grisly story in the second installment of the series– who graciously invited all of the Institute participants to their home.
One of the highlights of the day was a canoe trip along a two-mile stretch of the Kalamazoo River, following the path of the oil. Although there’s more to be done, the good news is that the river is bouncing back and it really is quite beautiful. Here’s a shot:
In all, it was a terrific experience and we’re deeply grateful to Dave Spratt and Adam Hinterthuer from IJNR for letting us tag along and speak to the journalists. We met lots of smart, interesting people– and we’re looking forward to seeing what kinds of stories the fellows produce. But as we wait, we plan to do some ruminating of our own on the experience in a few installments. In the meantime, here’s a video from the Battle Creek Enquirer taken at Dave Gallagher’s house. If you watch closely, you might even catch us in a brief (but silent) cameo!