As we mentioned earlier today– and discussed earlier this week— Enbridge has suddenly, inexplicably, decided to woo the press with a bit of pipeline construction stagecraft now that phase two of the Line 6B “replacement” is in full swing. Tom Hodge has been cast in the role of charming leading man– not a bad move, we have to admit. We’ve always found Hodge quite personable and certainly much more credible, straightforward, and responsive than Enbridge’s brood of PR hustlers– though we have also seen, to our disappointment, that Hodge is prone to the occasional Manshumism (that’s our new term for disingenuous or misleading statements; what do you think?).
Anyway, it’s not hard to see why Enbridge puts on these little media shows: they appear to work. Just take a look at two of the reports filed following yesterday’s mid-day matinée: one from Lisa Satayut at MLive (why didn’t they send Ursula Zerilli?) and another from Scott Davis at the Lansing State Journal. As far as we know, neither Davis nor Satayut has written about the Enbridge project before– and it shows. In fact, in order to try and be generous and fair, we’re going to assume that this fact accounts for both articles’ deficiencies. In our view, we think it’s best if reporters know as much as possible about whatever subject it is they’re writing about; we think readers are much better served that way– as we pointed out in our discussion of Tom Hillen’s disastrous TV spot this week. But we also know (though we’re not in the business) that that isn’t how things always work in practice. Satayut and Davis are given assignments and tight deadlines and not enough time to do the sort of homework that’s going to produce genuinely informative journalism. Because of this, the only thing they can do is type up an account of what happens right in front of their eyes. The results are unfortunate.
Davis’s piece reads just like an Enbridge press release. With the exception of very brief mentions of “the July 2010 pipeline spill that polluted the Kalamazoo River near Marshall” and recent protests (“In recent weeks,” Davis writes, the project “has been hampered by environmental protesters who have linked arms or climbed trees to temporarily block the work”), there is almost no context for the story whatsoever, not even an acknowledgment that this is the second phase of a project that has been going on for well over a year, rife with controversy and contention. Instead, Davis just seems sort of hypnotized by the impressiveness of the operation, waxing a bit lyrical, and then more than happy to step aside and let Jason Manshum pretend like everything has been going just swell, like this:
In most cases, the company purchased additional easements from the 2,500 landowners between Stockbridge and Griffith, Ind., offered reimbursements for crop losses and pledged to restore damaged property once the work is done, said Jason Manshum, spokesman for Enbridge.
“We try to listen to the neighbors and their concerns,” Hodge said. “We try to accommodate them.”
While Davis’s article isn’t much different than one of Enbridge’s notorious full page ads (perhaps this one in particular), at least Satayut recognizes, however simplistically, that there’s more to the story than just a bunch of guys with big equipment and a long stretch of steel pipe. She devotes six paragraphs (well, very short paragraphs) to controversy over the project and provides a full paragraph on Marshall. And there are hyperlinks to related articles.
Unfortunately, the article suffers from the same deficiencies we pointed out with regard to Ursula Zerilli’s piece a couple of days ago. What Satayut innocuously calls “differing opinions on the project” are once again reduced to a crude, ill-informed, and simplistic binary that pits safety-minded Enbridge against some felonious protestors climbing into or chaining themselves to the pipe. That’s it. Nothing about the fact that Enbridge has used the power of eminent domain to take dozens and dozens of landowners to court. Nothing about the fact that numerous Michigan citizens intervened in the MPSC’s approval proceedings for the project, a process that was prolonged, contentious, and raised an array of serious concerns that were not mere “opposition” to the project. Nothing about the fact that a grassroots citizen-group made up primarily of landowners along the pipeline route sued Enbridge in county, then federal court. Nothing about the long, complicated, fascinating standoff between Enbridge and Brandon Township, which illustrated vividly Enbridge’s contemptuous attitude toward and treatment of local authority and local ordinances. Nothing about similar skirmishes (though shorter and quieter) with a number of other townships along the route. Nothing about the silence and apathy of Michigan’s state and federal legislators who have turned a blind eye to Enbridge’s ongoing activities in this state, despite what we know about Marshall. Nothing about the NTSB report on the 2010 spill, which is where we learned so much of what we know about what happened in Marshall (and it ain’t pretty). And, perhaps worst of all, nothing whatsoever about the many, many, many landowners who have never opposed the project, but who have nevertheless felt abused, mistreated, bullied, disrespected, misinformed, under-compensated, beaten down and worn out by Enbridge and its land agents.
Now, we understand that a single article can’t do everything and certainly can’t take on all of that. We recognize that there’s only so much a reporter can do with a limited word count, a limited amount of space. We don’t expect Scott Davis and Lisa Satayut to know about or write about everything we just mentioned in one short article. However, it doesn’t seem to us too much to expect that they could have some dim awareness of all of this and write an article that in some way reflects that awareness, an article that is not either just an Enbridge press release masquerading as a news article (the Davis piece) or a news article that (once again) reduces a set of very important and very complicated and long-running set of concerns to a single woman climbing up into a tree one day (the Satayut piece).
In fact, if you don’t think that can be done, let us direct your attention to the report filed today by Mark Brush of Michigan Radio. Their team– including Rebecca Williams and Lindsey Smith– has been outstanding in their coverage for more than a year. And Mark’s report manages to accomplish– in fewer words!– what Davis and Satayut each fail to do: providing readers with some of the complex, varied, and serious issues that Enbridge’s little performance tried to hide backstage. And it’s not just that Brush went to Dave Gallagher’s house (though that’s no small thing). Mark also manages to mention the NTSB report. He points out (shrewdly) that technology isn’t everything when it comes to pipeline safety. And he mentions legitimate, reasonable landowner concerns that are not just a matter of “opposition.” Obviously, there’s a lot more meat that could still be put on those bones. But what Brush accomplishes in such a short piece is excellent.
It’s what you get when you give a story to a reporter who knows a thing or two about the story he’s covering.
While Enbridge works hard this week to woo the press (much more on this coming up later), they’re also taking some lumps. Comstock Township, like the EPA last week, has considered Enbridge’s request and then told them “no.” Late last night the Township Planning Commission voted unanimously to deny Enbridge special zoning for a dredge pad as they continue to clean up the Kalamazoo River. Lindsey Smith at Michigan Public Radio has the story. Evidently, residents and Bell’s Brewery owner Larry Bell were mighty pleased with the outcome.
Because we don’t know enough about the issue, we never really took a strong position on the dredge pad matter, except to say that in general we think it’s good policy to defer to local authority and community desires on such matters. We’re pretty big fans of local autonomy when it comes to the protection of landowners and natural resources. In fact, Enbridge’s callous disregard of local authority and concerns has been one of the major themes of this blog for more than a year. With that in mind, we’ll indulge in one little observation:
It now appears that Enbridge is going to have real trouble meeting the EPA mandated deadline for this latest round of clean up. And they probably think it’s all Larry Bell’s fault. But they have no one to blame but themselves. This dredge pad situation is a nearly identical replay of what happened on phase one of their project. They tried (despite their stated values) to take the easy way out and circumvent local ordinances. And what happened? Just like in Comstock Township, some brave local officials and concerned citizens cried foul, causing Enbridge to slow down, then scramble to make nice so they could resume their work after some long and painful (to Enbridge) delays. The result? The whole thing took far more time and created far more acrimony and bad feelings than it would (or should) have if Enbridge had simply gone about it thoughtfully, respectfully, and cooperatively in the first place.
In this context, the Comstock Township just demonstrates yet again that Enbridge appears incapable of learning from its mistakes.
If you’ve been paying attention, you’ve probably noticed that there has been a flurry of Enbridge Line 6B coverage this week. A great deal of it centers upon the harrowing situation at the house of our friend Dave Gallagher in Ceresco (and more and more). And the rest has been instigated by Enbridge itself, which has decided to launch a charm offensive with the press lately (see this and this). We can’t help but think these things are related; Enbridge seems to enjoy few things as much as a pr battle.
Anyway, we think Dave’s story is worth paying attention to. But not only because of the dramatic pictures and videos–and they certainly are dramatic. It’s also important because it illustrates vividly how and why Enbridge has bulldozed its way (literally and figuratively) through the state. In fact, we think that Dave’s situation represents a teachable moment. After all, plenty of other people on this route have experienced what Dave is going through– have you seen the pictures from Beth Duman’s house? Or Amy Nash’s? There are properties right in my neighborhood where the pipe runs within 10 or 15 feet of dwellings, just as it does Dave’s. Dave’s situation, and he’ll be the first to tell you this, is awful, but it’s far from singular.
Unfortunately, much of the press is unlikely to avail itself of the teachability of this moment. This is particularly true of television news. Witness, for instance, this rather awful report from Tom Hillen at WOOD-TV out of Grand Rapids. Go ahead and watch. We’ll continue after you’re done…
There are a number of serious problems here, not all of which are entirely Tim Hillen’s fault. Let’s review:
First and foremost, there are the remarks of the now-ubiquitous Jason Manshum, who unlike most of us has a job where he gets to say things all the time without ever being challenged or without worrying about whether what he says is at all verifiable. This time, he addresses Dave’s concerns that his property value will plummet. In response, Manshum says this:
“Studies have shown on our pipeline as well as other energy transportation companies that values — home values — do not decrease with pipelines. There is not a direct correlation that we have found,” Enbridge spokesman Jason Manshum said.
Those are certainly interesting claims and we would be very eager to verify whether thy are in fact true. For that reason, we’ve written to Manshum asking to see his data. Unfortunately, if history is any guide, he will ignore our query– because, as we said, Manshum lives in a dream-world where it doesn’t much matter whether his assertions are backed by any actual evidence. We’ll keep you posted.
The next problem with the report– and it is a MAJOR problem– is in fact Hillen’s fault. Here is what he says:
Enbridge is able to do the work because it has an easement on Gallagher’s property, which means it owns some of the land in his backyard.
Now, it’s not clear here whether this is something that Enbridge said to Hillen or whether Hillen generated this statement on his own. But one thing is clear: this is absolutely NOT TRUE. And the fact that it is not true is why this report is not only sloppy, but positively harmful. It does a tremendous disservice not only to Dave Gallagher, but to public discourse. It feeds a terrible misconception about property rights in general and Enbridge’s treatment of landowners in particular.
An easement does NOT mean that Enbridge “owns some of the land” on someone’s property. Dave Gallagher owns that land, period. An easement (or a right of way) simply means that Enbridge has the right to access and use that land for specific activities as specified in the easement agreement. They do NOT get to do whatever they want with it whenever they want to. They do not have total control over that property nor do they have total control over what Dave Gallagher does with that property. Even Enbridge would not dispute this. They can’t dispute it because it is a legal fact. And because easement rights are not ownership, it is entirely possible for easement holders (like Enbridge) to abuse or overstep their easement rights. (One might even argue that Enbridge has abused its easement rights). But just because Enbridge would not or cannot claim that they “own” the land for which they hold rights-of-way doesn’t mean that they’re not perfectly happy to have landowners and the public believe, mistakenly, that having an easement means owning that property. The more people believe that, the less likely Enbridge’s activities are to be challenged; the less likely know-nothings who post internet comments on stories like this one are to sympathize with situations like Dave’s. That’s just the way Enbridge likes it.
The last problem is the fault of Enbridge and Hillen both. On the subject of eminent domain, this is what Hillen says:
Enbridge says they didn’t have to pay Gallagher or other land owners, but they do because they want a good relationship with them. According to Manshum, Enbridge has eminent domain, which would give the company the right to lay the pipeline no matter what.
This is misleading at best. What does Manshum mean when he says Enbridge “didn’t have to pay… land owners”? That they don’t have to pay for exercising their easement right? That may be true, depending upon the easement agreement. But in most cases, that’s beside the point. Rather, the issue of payment frequently has more to do with (a) the acquisition of NEW easement rights– which is the case with Dave’s property. For that, they do have to pay; and (b) the use of “temporary workspace” and whatever damages that use causes. On our property, for instance, Enbridge took (temporarily) an additional 65 feet outside their existing easement. That’s where most of our trees and our garden were. Enbridge DID have to pay for that; they did not just pay us “because they want a good relationship with” us, as Manshum claims. They were legally obligated to compensate us for damages.
Perhaps even worse, though, is both Enbridge’s and Hillen’s glib treatment of eminent domain. Manshum trots it out, callously, like a sort of trump card and in doing so characterizes the whole situation so that it appears that every scrap and crumb Enbridge gives out is a sign of its tremendous generosity, when if they really wanted to they could just trample on us all like cockroaches. This is exactly what Enbridge VP Mark Sitek said to us after we went round and round for quite some time. One can only assume that this is what Enbridge really believes, despite all the good neighbor rhetoric: “you helpless, groveling peasants ought to be grateful we’re giving you anything at all!”
Hillen and his colleagues are all too happy to promulgate this view. Just watch their daft back and forth about it at the end of the report, shrugging their shoulders about eminent domain as if it’s just a fundamental law of the universe: “yeah, that’s just how it is with gravity. Nobody could stop that apple from falling from that tree.” The problem, however, is that eminent domain is NOT a natural law. Enbridge was granted that right by the Michigan Public Service Commission, through a process that, as we have written about exhaustively, was deeply flawed and failed to serve the interests of the citizens of this state. Hillen had a chance to explore that, to initiate a discussion about the use (and abuse) of eminent domain. But he did no such thing. Instead, he simply demonstrates that he doesn’t really understand eminent domain law any more than he understands easement rights.
As a result, a chance to actually inform the public, to explain to people why, aside from mere “inconvenience,” landowners might have some legitimate complaints, to use Dave Gallagher’s terrible story to help people understand easement rights or how and why foreign companies are granted the power of eminent domain, or to initiate some important discussions about matters like property rights and energy policy and our regulatory systems, things that ought to be of interest to every citizen, is missed. And because of that, even though Enbridge isn’t running bulldozers right outside all of our living rooms, we’re all still getting Gallaghered. Score another one for Enbridge.
Update, August 20, 2013: Well, it turns out that what looked like a very big Enbridge whopper (details below) is actually just a run-of-the-mill bit of Enbridge misinformation. Reporter Tina Casagrand has the clarification from Enbridge in a comment to this post. We are glad for spokesperson Katie Lange’s sake that she wasn’t actually saying that the Marshall spill was the result of “something that was stuck in the pipe.” Unfortunately, the clarification doesn’t actually bring all that much clarity to the matter. Here’s why:
Enbridge now says that “the incident” to which Lange’s refers in her statement is the discharge that resulted from a hydrotest of the new Line 6B earlier this summer. (You might remember that we wrote about it at the time.) We’ll take them at their word on this. The problem, however, is that the statement is STILL inaccurate and even, it seems, rather disingenuous. The inaccurate part is that the incident did not take place in Marshall. Ore Creek is in Tyrone Township, Livingston County, nowhere near Marshall. The disingenuous part is that Lange says Enbridge didn’t “purposefully” violate the permit, suggesting instead that the violations were the result of something getting stuck. However, if you look at the violations-– there are ELEVEN of them– it’s hard to see how any of them could have been the result of something getting stuck in the line. For instance, (just to name a few) the DEQ cites Enbridge for not having any on-site representatives during the discharge, for not taking any samples of the discharge on June 17 (three days before the discharge), for not conducting water inspections as required the week before the discharge, and for not inspecting their equipment as required. As far as we can tell, none of these things have anything at all to do with something getting stuck in the pipe. So the question that remains is whether Enbridge failed to perform these required actions “purposefully,” as Lange claims. Maybe that’s a difficult thing to determine, we guess. But if the violations aren’t the result of an accident (and the evidence suggests they weren’t), and they were not purposeful, that only leaves one alternative: incompetence. That is not very comforting.
Two very interesting stories appeared in newspapers today written by talented young reporters. Over at the St. Louis Beacon, Tina Casagrand has an excellent piece about Enbridge’s Flanagan South project. As we’ve noted before, this is another one of Enbridge’s clever schemes to out-Keystone Keystone XL. This line will head south through the midwest and eventually make it all the way to the coast. And the most disturbing part? Even though it crosses an international border, Enbridge has once again found a way to skirt the presidential permitting problem and avoid public scrutiny. And also once again, the project is mostly flying under the radar while almost all eyes remain fixed on KXL. This is one reason Tina’s piece (and others that have appeared before it) is so very important.
But the most extraordinary thing of all in the article– and, honestly, we thought we’d heard it all by now– is what Enbridge spokesperson Katie Lange has to say about the Marshall spill. If you’re not sitting down, you might want to. At least be sure you’re holding on to something solid. This whopper is even worse than the infuriatingly dishonest story Enbridge VP of Operations Richard Adams told to the EPA a couple of weeks ago. Okay. Are you ready? Here’s Lange on Marshall:
“For the incident in Marshall, it wasn’t that Enbridge purposefully violated, it was something that was stuck in the pipe,” added Lange.
Something stuck in the pipe?! We have long been baffled and angered by the misleading, disingenuous, obfuscatory, and inaccurate things that Enbridge spokespersons– the Larry Springers and Jennifer Smiths and Jason Manshums say. But this one has to take the cake. One can only wonder where in the world poor Katie Lange got that patently false piece of information. Surely she or someone at Enbridge will call Tina to correct it. Right?
The other interesting story today is from Ursula Zerilli over at MLive, who is following up on her article from last week. For some strange reason, Enbridge decided to get chummy with some reporters as they kick off phase two of the project and so (evidently) reporters got to ride around in a van with Tom Hodge and some others. But unlike last week’s article, in this one Ursula speaks with some Enbridge critics, among them our friend Dave Gallagher, whose situation as an affected landowner is a real nightmare– just get a load of the picture that accompanies the article! The article also features some remarks from inspector Raymond Ashley, who appears to have a real penchant for forced, mawkish metaphors:
“We are trying to weld more than just this pipe together,” said Raymond Ashley, who was proudly wearing a photo of his granddaughter as a badge. “We’re welding more than just a pipeline. We need to bond together the environment, safety and the integrity of this pipeline. We have one day to build integrity and that’s today.”
Anyway, while we think the article is accurate and fair (she even emphasizes Enbridge’s slow response to Marshall), it also left us a little dissatisfied for reasons that might be worth explaining in a bit of detail. The reason we’re dissatisfied– and we don’t really blame Ursula for this– is that the article lacks nuance. It lacks subtlety and complexity. Again, this isn’t really Ursula’s fault. We live in a (news) culture that likes simple binary narratives– us vs. them, black vs. white, good guys vs. bad guys. That’s what (or so editors seem to think) appeals to people. Making this even worse is that Ursula was probably only given about 800 words in which to tell her story– hard to be nuanced in such a short space. Yet nuance is important. Here’s why:
One comes away from the article with a simple dichotomy: there are pipeline proponents (like Tom Hodge and Enbridge) and there are pipeline opponents (the protestors from MICATS). They are the article’s protagonists and antagonists (we’ll let you decide who’s who!). But the problem with this narrative– which pits people who don’t want pipelines against people building pipelines– is that it is precisely the way that Enbridge wants to have this story framed. It’s why former Enbridge CEO likes to talk about “revolutionaries” and why Enbridge spokesman Larry Springer talks about “special interest groups.” That kind of story serves Enbridge’s interests perfectly because it allows them to sound reasonable and pragmatic, while casting everyone else as a little bit crazy, on the fringes, out of the mainstream. So, for instance, Tom Hodge gets to say things like this:
“It’s hard to understand their logic,” he said of those protesting the pipeline replacement project. “It seems like they want us to turn the pipeline off or just not replace this pipeline, which already ruptured. There’s not a good alternative to what we are doing and we feel like it’s a good thing for the State of Michigan.”
“There would be riots in the streets if food wasn’t being delivered or if fuel wasn’t being delivered,” he said. “I’m all for having an alternate fuel, but until that becomes available, there’s no other option. You can use natural gas but that has to come by pipeline, too. If that ruptures, it’s not a polluting event like oil … It’s a fireball.”
See how that works? Hodge makes it sound like the alternatives are clear and stark: EITHER Enbridge gets to build whatever pipelines it wants to build however it wants to build them OR there will be riots in the streets because people are starving. I mean, what kind of person would be in favor of people starving?!
But here’s the thing: that is complete and total and utter nonsense. It is a ridiculously false choice. Those are quite plainly NOT the only alternatives. People are not going to starve and riot in the street if Enbridge does not get to pump 800,000 barrels of tar sands oil a day across Michigan through a shiny new Line 6B. No serious person believes any such thing. And yet Hodge gets to imply as much and, in doing so, also gets to come off as the person who is being rational and realistic.
And that’s not even the worst part. The other reason this simplistic (and largely false) narrative of people in favor of the pipeline vs. people opposed to the pipeline serves Enbridge so well is because it allows them to evade the real substance of most of the real criticism of the way they have conducted themselves in Michigan over the past three years (or more). As we have said over and over and over and over again (so often we don’t even have the energy to provide links anymore), the problem isn’t that they’re replacing Line 6B. The problem is how they’ve gone about it. Most of us do not oppose the “replacement” of the line– a new pipe is obviously better than an aging pipe. That has NEVER been the issue. What we object to is the way that Enbridge has cleverly skirted federal regulations, the way they have abused their easement rights and mistreated landowners and trampled property rights, the way they have misinformed people, the way they have flouted or ignored local authority and thrown their weight around, the way they have essentially re-written Michigan law to serve their own financial interests. All that plus the fact that we have a bunch of elected officials and a set of pathetically weak regulatory systems that allows all of this to continue.
Those are the real issues. And they are issues that affect and therefore ought to concern all the citizens of the state of Michigan. To pretend otherwise– to pretend that it’s a simple matter of energy production vs. a handful of environmental radicals– does nothing but allow Enbridge to avoid having to face any of the things I’ve described, to avoid ever being confronted with genuinely tough questions. So once again, as always, Enbridge gets exactly what it wants.
This just in: the EPA has denied Enbridge’s request for an extension to complete the latest round of dredging in the Kalamazoo River. We don’t know enough about dredge pads and Comstock Township to have a strong opinion on the dredge site matter, but as we explained at length last week (here and in a letter to the EPA), Enbridge was shockingly dishonest in their letter to the EPA asking for the request. One can only surmise that that fact– there’s no way EPA couldn’t have known the truth– had something to do with the denial. It would have been nice to see EPA call Enbridge out on their attempt to blame someone else for the delay with the Comstock permit. But it was satisfying to see EPA call Enbridge out on a similar matter: Enbridge’s attempt to pretend like the Michigan DEQ was slow in issuing permits. From the EPA letter (emphasis ours).
Enbridge also noted in its letter that MDEQ has not yet issued the dredge permit for Morrow Lake and the Delta. Although this is true, it is also true that Enbridge has not yet submitted certain information required by MDEQ for the permit application. Enbridge has had all required information from U.S. EPA for completion of the application since U.S. EPA approved the Dredge Completion Depth Plan on August 1, 2013. U.S. EPA again reminds Enbridge to submit this information to MDEQ immediately.
Ursula Zerilli has more in a thorough article over at MLive. Michigan Radio’s Steve Carmody has also filed a report.
As we’ve said before, we can imagine that Enbridge, thin-skinned as they are, probably thinks that we are overly-critical, probably to the point of being unfair, that we nitpick, that we dwell on the negative. Maybe that’s true– although we think it’s a pretty big deal when, for example, they tell dishonest stories to the EPA. And anyway, we can’t help it that they keep giving us so many nits to pick. Perhaps they should stop that.
But in fairness, we do try to call ’em like we see ’em and that means when they do something right, we should say so– even though it seems a little silly to heap a lot of praise on them for doing the basic things they’re supposed to do. Still, with all that as preface, here’s a positive story:
After months and months of the right of way and workspace in our backyard sitting around empty and untended, to no one’s surprise weeds have taken over. Lots and lots of weeds. Just look:
When reclamation crews appeared late last week to start cleaning up, we were more than a little bothered to learn that their standard procedure is to just plow these weeds under– which really just guarantees that they’ll return. Now it may be that to most people, that’s no big deal. But to us, that’s a real problem; it’s been a source of concern for us from day one (as we explained a long time ago), not to mention an ongoing problem.
Unfortunately, we had to make about five different phone calls before we were able to convince anybody that this was a serious matter worth addressing. But once we got through to Enbridge, they did snap right into action. In fact, on Monday, we met with a whole bunch of them– our land agent, guys from the construction crew, the environmental inspector, and a couple of others: a whole cavalry! And together, we arrived at a perfectly satisfactory solution to the weed problem. We are grateful to all of them for taking the time to come out and address it; they were serious and helpful and genuinely seemed to want to work with us We especially thank the environmental inspector (he’s actually a non-Enbridge employee), who has always been helpful to us, and the construction foreman on the job, who seems to be a terrific guy, responsive and very professional. We have long said (without the least bit of surprise) that the construction workers on this job are a fine, courteous, and good bunch of people; we’ve enjoyed meeting lots of them, despite the circumstances.
Bottom line: once we finally got through to them (and frankly, it could and should have been easier), Enbridge was responsive to our desires on the weed matter. We appreciate it.
Evidently, Enbridge thinks the EPA is stupid– or doesn’t have access to the local news.
As MLive reported last week— along with numerous other news outlets— Enbridge has asked the EPA for an extension to complete the latest round of dredging ordered by the agency earlier this year. The reason for the extension request has to do (ostensibly) with the situation in Comstock Township, the Bell’s Brewery lawsuit, and permitting from the Michigan DEQ. In and of itself, the extension request isn’t terribly surprising. And since we don’t know very much about dredge pads and zoning in Comstock Township and haven’t carefully investigated those things, we’re not really in a position to offer any confident opinions about Enbridge’s plan–although if Comstock residents and business owners like Larry Bell have serious concerns, we certainly think they need to be heard.
So this post isn’t really about the site plan. Instead, it’s about the part of the story that no one else (as far as we know) has bothered to mention: the audacity– or, to call it what it is– the flagrant dishonesty of Enbridge’s letter to the EPA. Why the letter’s demonstrable falsehoods– and we don’t use this language lightly– have thus far been given a free pass we do not understand.
Before we explain, let’s put this in a little context. Over the past year, we have said– and shown— repeatedly that Enbridge fails to live up to its professed corporate values. This simple point was even the basis of our talk at the PSTrust conference last year, which a number of Enbridge representatives attended. So they know very well that plenty of us are measuring their actions against their words. Once again, let’s take a quick look at some of those values. The first ones on the list fall under the heading of “Integrity”:
Maintain truth in all interactions
Do the right thing; do not take the easy way out
Take accountability for our actions, without passing blame to others
With these things in mind, let’s watch as Senior Vice President of Operations Richard L. Adams violates all three of them in the span of just a few sentences. Here’s what Adams says in his letter to the EPA requesting that extension. The offending portions are in boldface:
Enbridge’s preparation for dredging in the Delta and Morrow Lake area has been discontinued due to an unanticipated issue with securing a dredge pad site. Enbridge originally selected a site for the dredge pad that met all technical and practical requirements and promptly applied for the appropriate permit from the Township of Comstock. Unfortunately, some local residents and business owners have vigorously opposed granting the permit. As a result, the Township of Comstock has not yet issued the required permit to allow use of the specific site selected for the dredge pad.
1. “Maintain truth in all interactions.” Is Adams’s description of why Enbridge’s dredging plan has been delayed truthful? Well, no. Adams makes it sounds as if Enbridge was doing everything precisely as it should and would have made the EPA deadline just fine until some pesky obstructionist locals got in the way and mucked everything up. But that little narrative, flattering though it may be to Enbridge simply does not square with reality.
For one thing, it is quite plainly NOT true to say that Enbridge “promptly applied for the appropriate permit from the Township of Comstock.” Of course, the term “promptly” might seem to leave a little wriggle room (after all, who gets to decide what counts as prompt?). But let’s consider the facts: the EPA issued its dredging order on March 14 of this year. Enbridge only submitted a site plan to Comstock Township on July 9, nearly four months later (and even then, they submitted it to the wrong body, further delaying matters; more on this below). And they only did so after the Comstock Township Supervisor discovered they were about to begin work without the permit and asked them to stop. Would any reasonable person honestly believe that that qualifies as having “promptly applied”? In fact, does that even count as having applied at all? We tend to think not, but can’t say for sure.
But you don’t have to take our word for it. Just consider some of the key players in this matter who also do not think it was prompt. One of them is Enbridge’s own attorney Christopher Tracy. Here is what Tracy said at the Comstock Township Planning Commission on July 25 about that site plan:
I’d like also to apologize on behalf of Enbridge in terms of sort of the fast pace of this. All of you know we’re under an order from the EPA, where work needs to transpire between now and the end of the year.
We would love to have a situation where we weren’t sort of under that kind of clock. So we apologize if we sort of put you in that position and we apologize for not submitting the site plan to you earlier. It should have been done in a different manner, but it was not.
“We apologize for not submitting the site plan to you earlier.” Extraordinary, isn’t it? Not even Enbridge’s own lawyer thinks they applied for the Comstock permit “promptly.” He even apologizes for not having applied for it promptly and says that “it should have been done in a different manner.”
And Tracy is not the only one who doesn’t think Enbridge applied for the Comstock permit promptly. Have a look at what Comstock Township Supervisor Ann Nieuwenhuis says in a July 10 letter to the Michigan DEQ:
At the outset I must express disappointment that substantial work on both of those sites has occurred without Enbridge applying for and obtaining the necessary Township permits required under the Township’s ordinances and its Zoning Ordinance in particular. While representatives of Enbridge have recently expressed to the Township an intent to apply for and obtain the necessary Township zoning approval and otherwise comply with all applicable Township ordinance requirements, this has not yet occurred. Enbridge’s delay in approaching the Township in this regard has unnecessarily exacerbated the Township’s citizens’ concerns and will make it much more difficult to give those concerns as reflected in the Township Zoning Ordinance proper consideration within the abbreviated timeframe that Enbridge indicates is available to it.
So, neither Enbridge’s own attorney nor the Comstock Supervisor think that Enbridge applied for the Township permit “promptly.” In fact, both of them state quite clearly that a major problem here is that Enbridge FAILED to apply for the permit promptly. That failure is the primary cause of the delay, a delay that has in turn caused Enbridge to seek that extension from the EPA. Yet, in the face of this clear fact, as agreed to by both an Enbridge attorney speaking before the Comstock Planning Commission and the Comstock Township Supervisor, Richard Adams tells the EPA that Enbridge applied for the permit promptly.
2. “Do the right thing; do not take the easy way out.” Which leads us to the next “value” that Adams violates in his letter. The whole point of all of this for Ann Nieuwenhuis (or so it seems to us) is that Enbridge did NOT do the right thing from the start, which would have been to initiate discussions with the Township from the very beginning, to communicate their dredging plans with them, and to apply for the appropriate permits before starting work. But they did none of that. That’s what Nieuwenhuis objected to in the first place. Instead, Enbridge tried to “take the easy way out,” tried to just do things the way they wanted to, without consulting local authorities or inviting local input. (This is the same sort of thing they did with Brandon Township and Howell Township earlier this year.) And since then, Enbridge has continued to NOT do the right thing, like, for instance, submitting the site plan to the Planning Commission and not the Zoning Board as the process requires (thus further delaying matters!). Why did Enbridge do that? Well, here is what Supervisor Niewenhuis had to say about that:
The township had previously warned Enbridge when submitting its site applications that it should go through the ZBA first, but Nieuwenhuis said Enbridge tried to expedite the process by going straight to the Planning Commission with its north site application.
“They didn’t want to do that because (notice of the ZBA meeting) has to be posted in a newspaper 15 days in advance of the meeting,” Nieuwenhuis said. “They thought going directly to the planning commission would be the way to go.”
That’s right, Enbridge tried to “expedite the process”; they tried to take the easy way out. The same goes for Adams’s letter. In it, he isn’t doing the right thing. The “right” thing would be to own up to having screwed up and to accept the consequences of that screw up. But that’s not what he is doing in the letter. Instead, he is taking the easy way out.
3. “Take accountability for our actions, without passing blame to others.” Or, to put that last point another way, Adams is most certainly not taking accountability for Enbridge’s actions. Quite the contrary, he is clearly passing blame to others. His letter makes it look like Comstock, the DEQ, and Larry Bell (they can’t even bother to get the name of the brewery right, calling it “Bell Brewery”) are to blame for the delays. It’s everybody’s fault but Enbridge’s. Locals have “vigorously opposed granting the permit,” Adams says. And “as a result,” Enbridge’s plans have been delayed. But that is at best a half-truth. It certainly does not in any way acknowledge Enbridge’s role in delaying the granting of that permit. Such a brazen, deliberate mischaracterization of this situation– aside from egregiously flouting the values Adams is supposed to live by as an Enbridge employee (and not just any employee, but an executive!)– are precisely why Enbridge has lost so much trust with so many people. If they’re willing to look EPA in the eye and pass off clearly demonstrable falsehoods, how is anybody else ever to believe anything they say?
The thing that baffles us most is why Enbridge thinks it can get away with this sort of thing, why they think it’s okay to carefully and deliberately and demonstrably misrepresent the situation to the EPA. Do they think that they can just pull the wool over the eyes of Jeff Kimble, the EPA on-scene coordinator to whom the letter is written? Do they think that Kimble is that stupid? that gullible?
For our part, we think no such thing. We think there’s no possible way that Kimble doesn’t know the truth of the matter. If he really is on scene, he most certainly knows that Enbridge wasn’t just unexpectedly blindsided by a bunch of oppositional Comstock residents one day. He must know that Enbridge created this situation by attempting to proceed without engaging those same Comstock residents or following Comstock’s ordinances. He surely knows all of that. If we were Kimble, we’d be furious, insulted, affronted. And yet we doubt (though we don’t really know) that Kimble and the EPA will call Enbridge out on all of this any more than the press will. Enbridge will most likely get its extension and incur no penalties. Richard Adams’s counterfactual letter will accomplish precisely what it was designed to accomplish regardless of whether it accurately represents the situation.
Which leads us to a pretty frightening, disheartening, demoralizing conclusion– but also an explanation of why Enbridge thinks it can get away with this sort of thing. It’s because they can and do get away with this sort of thing. Over and over. And that’s because everybody just plays along, lets it slide, looks the other way, treats it as no big deal, as just the way things are. So what we have is a situation that looks something like this: Enbridge does not tell the truth to the EPA and knows it’s not telling the truth; the EPA, Comstock Township, and the press all also know that Enbridge isn’t telling the truth; and Enbridge knows that the EPA, Comstock, and the press all know that Enbridge isn’t telling the truth. But nobody says a word about it. Instead, everybody silently agrees to pretend like Enbridge is telling the truth. Everybody agrees to live in a sort of imaginary world where the untrue gets treated as true, rather than a world in which what is true really does matter. It’s the same way that everybody agrees to pretend that Talmadge Creek and the Kalamazoo River are still real creeks and rivers, rather than Enbridge-created ones.
It’s just easier that way.
Following up on our earlier link to Alexis Bonogofsky’s great, eerie blog post over at the NWF’s Wildlife Promise blog, we thought we might call your attention to a few other things there:
Stir and sniff tar sands in the Oil Sands Discovery Centre in Fort McMurray, Alberta, Canada. Photo by Alexis Bonogofsky
One of the new friends we made on our trip to DC is the NWF’s Alexis Bonogofsky. Alexis recently took a trip to Alberta, Canada to see the tar sands– the place where this whole mess begins– first-hand. What she found at the Fort McMurray informational center is astonishing, hilarious– and deeply disturbing. Check out her great blog post here.
We’re working on the second installment on our trip to Washington DC last week to meet with legislators and regulators. If you missed part one– about the meeting we did not have— please check it out.
In the meantime, some interesting articles and stories have appeared in the press in the past week or so. Here we go:
We’ve mentioned before Enbridge’s “Albert Clipper” expansion, which is currently going through the presidential permitting process, just like Keystone XL. This was one of the topics we discussed with representatives of the State Department last week. We’ll have a lot more to say about it in the weeks to come and we’ll likely be encouraging you to speak up once the public comments part of the review begins. For now, we”d just point you to this excellent op-ed in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel by Eric Hansen. It’s excellent. Here’s a little taste:
Connect the dots on Enbridge’s efforts to quietly network thousands of miles of pipelines — a system that would lock in both Wisconsin and our region as a major transportation corridor to ship tar sands crude oil overseas to the world market for decades to come — and a reasonable citizen would be outraged.
Profit and jobs would go to Canada. Crude oil would go overseas. Toxic risk would stay here, sprinkled throughout our region in the crude oil spills, air quality and public health impacts that would certainly come.
And speaking of Keystone XL (we talked with officials about that, too, in DC), it appears that some legislators are none too happy with some recent remarks by the President (if you missed them, they are here). Which legislators are displeased, you ask? Well, none other than the House Chairman of the Energy and Commerce Committee, Rep. Fred Upton. Yes, that Fred Upton, the guy who represents Kalamazoo! Upton is among the most outspoken supporters of KXL– which, we suppose, gives him something to do since he certainly doesn’t spend any time whatsoever inquiring into what Enbridge is doing back in his home state and district. We’ve spent a fair amount of time here lamenting the appalling failure of leadership in this state when it comes to Enbridge– and we made that point repeatedly to the people we spoke with in Washington– but Upton, with the possible exception of Governor Snyder, might well be the worst offender. Given the district he represents, he should be leading the charge in looking out for the interests of Michigan landowners and the state’s natural resources. Instead, he’s leading the charge in hastening the transportation of more tar sands oil through the U.S.
Speaking even more of KXL and Enbridge, Pulitzer Prize winner Lisa Song has another excellent article over at Inside Climate News describing yet another Enbridge plan to out-Keystone TransCanada while almost nobody, as we’ve said many times, is watching. It’s more piecing things together, this time converting gas lines to transport tar sands oil. But it’s okay because you can rest assured that PHMSA will do almost nothing to ensure that the plan is safe and sound. The PSTRust’s Carl Weimer notes that “Operators don’t need permission from PHMSA to change the contents of a pipeline, and the conversion process doesn’t trigger environmental studies. Operators simply create a plan of operation that meets PHMSA’s pipeline safety regulations, he said.”
From Indiana, Jeff Harrell at the South Bend Tribune posted two articles this week about the Enbridge Line 6B project, placing them helpfully in larger contexts. It’s very solid work and we especially appreciate his focus on Native American concerns about the project. His first article begins, for instance, with representatives from the Pokagon Band of the Potawotami Tribe, who live on the Michigan-Indiana border.
Inevitably, Jason Manshum shows up in the article with more absurd, misleading remarks. He’s back to complaining about the “tar sands” term again: “Manshum calls the term “tar sands” “… a misnomer, a slang word associated with this type of crude by opponents.” But of course, this is total baloney. The industry itself used that term for decades until someone in Manshum’s line of work (spin doctoring) decided back in the 1960s that “oil sands” sounded friendlier.
Harrell’s second article, which unfortunately (we don’t hold him responsible for this) bears the very stupid headline, “Pipeline Has Support, Opposition” (they could have just said, “Humans Agree, Disagree”), considers Line 6B in relation to KXL, which we’ve been trying to convince reporters to do for a very long time. Manshum’s on board for this one, too, assuring us all that pipeline corrosion is not a problem with diluted bitumen:
Enbridge’s Manshum cites the U.S. Department of Transportation’s investigation into the spill to dispute the claim that the line broke from abrasive tar sands oil corroding the inside of the pipe.
“One thing they made crystal clear was that the rupture was not caused by internal corrosion, but on the outside, or the exterior of the line related to the coating,” Manshum says.
Strictly speaking, of course, what Manshum says is true. But it’s more than a little ironic that he’d cite the NTSB report, since what it also shows is that Enbridge ignored the pipe’s exterior defects and that their “culture of deviance” from safety protocols contributed tremendously to the Marshall disaster. Honestly, we sometimes wonder how Jason Manshum can sleep at night.
Lastly, Jennifer Bowman has a lengthy and interesting article in the Battle Creek Enquirer about Enbridge’s home buyout program in Marshall. It’s a piece that we imagine is quite pleasing to Enbridge, since Bowman talks with some people who had very positive experiences with Enbridge. She spoke also with some unhappy landowners, but they are more or less portrayed as greedy whiners. We find this entire situation quite fascinating and disturbing in many ways, though we confess we don’t know enough about it to make many confident pronouncements. We also think that Bowman’s article leaves a great many questions unasked; we’re going to think and learn more about this and discuss it more in a later post (hopefully). For now, just one little observation:
What is it with people that makes them so uncharitable toward others? Why the need to belittle those whose experiences differ from their own? We’ve seen this sort of tactic– from fellow landowners!–before. And we see it again from Wayne Groth, who gets lots of ink in Bowman’s article. Groth believes he got a good deal from Enbridge– and we’re very glad for that; we wish it were the case with everyone. But then he has to go and say this:
“The ones screaming the loudest are probably the greediest,” Groth said, “and they’re looking to cash in. They remind me of damn trial lawyers that want to sue for money and put the company out of business.”
In all seriousness: does Groth really know this? Does he even know who is “screaming” loudly, much less what those (imaginary) screamers are screaming about or for? We doubt it. This sort of talk just makes him seem like a guy with very little imagination, very little ability to adopt the perspective of someone else a person whose mindset is, “I got mine; screw the rest of you.” And that’s just downright unneighborly.
Today, we officially launch our new series on our trip to Washington D.C. last week. As we noted the other day, the trip was a lobbying “fly-in” hosted by the National Wildlife Federation. We are very grateful to them for the opportunity– and not just because we had the chance to tell the story of Line 6B landowners to congressional staffers and officials at the State Department. We also got to meet all sorts of interesting, committed people from across the country (some of whom we’ll talk about a little during the course of this series).
We begin our series not with an account of one of our meetings, but with an account of a meeting we did NOT have. On the right is a picture of the FERC building. FERC, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, is the agencey that regulates “the transportation of oil by pipeline in interstate commerce” (among other things). Why a picture of FERC? Well, because we walked past it on our way from Union Station to the hotel. Also, we didn’t get a picture of the building that houses the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Administration (PHMSA), the agency responsible for regulating oil pipelines.
Why no picture of the PHMSA building? Well, because we didn’t get to see it. You see, the NWF requested a meeting with officials from PHMSA, but the agency declined to meet with any of us. Yes, you heard that right. PHMSA did not want to meet with an important national non-governmental organization, representatives from conservation groups from around the country, and ordinary citizens with a direct stake in pipeline safety. How’s that for responsive government?
This snub, positively Larry Springer-like, is all the more galling since action from PHMSA was one of the key “asks” of the fly-in (an “ask,” I learned, is lobbying jargon for the thing or things you are asking your government to do; hence, the purpose of your meeting with them). Back in May, the NWF, along with a coalition comprised of various other groups and individuals, submitted a petition to the EPA and PHMSA, asking for stricter regulations for tar sands pipelines to help ensure their safety. The measures called for in the petition are utterly reasonable; in fact, when you read them, your first reaction is that you can’t believe such standards and practices don’t already exist. For instance, the petition asks for “industry disclosure of products carried through pipelines and their conveyance schedules” (duh!); “stronger spill response plans” (of course!); “repair of pipelines as soon as defects are discovered” (obviously!); and “pipeline inspection and monitoring by independent entities unaffiliated with pipeline or energy companies” (wait, you mean they’re not independent now?!). These things all strike us utterly uncontroversial (except, perhaps, to to the most zealous of free-marketeering industry leave-us-aloners). You’d think that PHMSA, its reputation severely tarnished by the scathing NTSB report on Marshall, would jump at the chance to consider them. But you’d be wrong.
Which begs the question, why did PHMSA refuse this request for a meeting? Honestly, we have no idea. But we’re pretty sure it’s not because they’re so very busy working on other things related to tar sands pipeline safety. What leads us to such a conclusion? Well, let us tell you what PHMSA recently told Congress about its activities on this front:
First, the background. You might remember that in 2011, Congress passed the Pipeline Safety, Regulatory Certainty, and Job Creation Act of 2011, largely in response to the disaster in Marshall. It’s a pretty mealy-mouthed bill, in our view, but at least it was something. Mostly, it asks PHMSA– again, the federal regulatory agency responsible for pipeline safety– to take certain actions; well, to look into certain things. Among those things is this:
SEC. 16. STUDY OF TRANSPORTATION OF DILUTED BITUMEN.
Not later than 18 months after the date of enactment of this Act, the Secretary of Transportation shall complete a comprehensive review of hazardous liquid pipeline facility regulations to determine whether the regulations are sufficient to regulate pipeline facilities used for the transportation of diluted bitumen. In conducting the review, the Secretary shall conduct an analysis of whether any increase in the risk of a release exists for pipeline facilities trans- porting diluted bitumen. The Secretary shall report the results of the review to the Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation of the Senate and the Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure and the Committee on Energy and Commerce of the House of Representatives.
The Act went into effect in January of 2012, which means that we are now past the 18 month point. Has PHMSA produced the “comprehensive review” Congress charged them with producing? No, they have not. They did commission the National Academy of Sciences to produce a review of existing studies of a very narrow topic, which was recently released (and touted by industry, but criticized by just about everyone else, including the Pipeline Safety Trust). But that’s it. A year and a half and PHMSA has failed to comply with what may be the most crucial component of the Act.
But that’s not the worst of it. If you really want to see PHMSA doing nothing, you have to take a look at the recent report they submitted to Congress in late June, which provides their response to a series of safety recommendations issued by the National Transportation Safety Board in 2012. (PHMSA is required to submit these reports annually.) The NTSB issued a number of recommendations, the bulk of them in direct response to their findings in the Marshall investigation. PHMSA’s response, as reported to Congress, is mind boggling. It has to be one of the most extraordinary examples of foot-dragging, excuse-making, stalling, evading, and ass-covering we have ever seen– and that includes nearly two decades of paper deadline extension requests from feckless college students!
We’ll spare you the bulk of the details– it’s pretty dull, bureaucratic stuff– and just provide you with some highlights. The long and the short of it is that PHMSA has done almost nothing in response to the recommendations; they seem incapable of performing even the simplest and least onerous of tasks, and evidently don’t realize, or just don’t care, just how insulting to Congress, the NTSB, and the public their document makes them appear to be. We can’t decide if the report bespeaks PHMSA’s incompetence or its contempt toward Congress. Maybe it’s both.
Of the 10 recommendations issued by the NTSB, PHMSA has completed action on only one of them. In every other case, PHMSA simply says the such-and-such “is under development” or “is currently under development” or “is addressing this recommendation” or “is reviewing” the matter. In fact, if you’re looking for the ideal specimen of tortured, convoluted, obfuscating, shirking, hedging, responsibility-dodging, agency double-speak you probably couldn’t do much better than PHMSA’s response to the recommendation that they “extend operator qualification requirements” for pipeline control center staff. What PHMSA says in response to that one– you should probably sit down for this– is that they are trying “to determine the best way to determine whether or not additional clarification is needed…”
No, we did not make that up.
But there’s more. For instance, the NTSB recommended that PHMSA issue an “advisory bulletin” to notify other pipeline operators “(1) of the circumstances of the Marshall, Michigan, pipeline accident, and (2) of the need to identify deficiencies in facility response plans,” updating them as necessary. Now, just so this is clear, keep in mind that an “advisory bulletin” is really just an informational document. It’s not rulemaking; it’s not fact-finding. It’s the equivalent of reminding your kids to wash their hands after they use the restroom. So has PHMSA issued this advisory bulletin– which really could consist of nothing more than a link to the NTSB report on Marshall along with a headnote that says, “DON’T DO THIS”? No, they have not. Instead, they say that the agency “anticipates publishing” such an advisory bulletin– a way of putting it that makes it seem like it’s out of their hands, like they’re farmers watching weather reports and expecting some much needed rain. A little later PHMSA says that the bulletin “is scheduled to be issued by August 2013.” Today is August 5, 2013. No bulletin has been issued.
The NTSB also recommended a second bulletin, one that describes the “deficiencies observed in Enbridge’s… integrity management program” so that other operators can eliminate similar deficiencies in their own operations. Again, this is a very simple task, the sort of thing that, say, Rebecca Craven of the PS Trust could probably type up during a coffee break on a busy day. In fact, almost anyone who has read the NTSB report could produce this bulletin. PHMSA has had a year to do it. But again, they only “anticipate” issuing a bulletin oft this sort– “by August 2013.” They’ve missed that deadline too.
So maybe all of this is why PHMSA didn’t want to meet with us last week. Maybe they’re ducking and hiding the way students who have not completed their assignments on time will sometimes avoid showing up for class because they know they’ll be called out. Maybe they know they’re asleep at the wheel and don’t want to face a bunch of people who also know it. Maybe they’re even a little ashamed and embarrassed.
Or maybe they’re just overworked and understaffed. In fact, we have no doubt that they’re understaffed. But if that’s the problem, why doesn’t their report reflect that serious problem? Why didn’t they just say to Congress, “You know, Congress, we recognize that this report makes us look hapless, but we are so understaffed and so poor in resources that we can’t even get a simple memo typed up when given a full year to do it, much less produce a comprehensive review of all of the implications of tar sands oil transport. These reports would be much more useful for everyone if you guys would appropriate some real resources to us”? But PHMSA says nothing of the sort. And the fact that it doesn’t say so leads us to believe that this isn’t exactly the problem.
So maybe it’s something else. Maybe they just don’t want to do these things. Maybe they’d prefer not to institute any new regulations or stricter requirements. Maybe they don’t want to rehearse the parade of horrors that was the Marshall spill because they don’t want to make Enbridge look bad all over again. Maybe they are so cozy with industry and so hostile to organizations like the NWF and people like us that they drag their feet on Congressional mandates and NTSB recommendations and they duck and hide from critics and the members of the public they are supposed to protect because that’s better for industry. Because that’s who they’re really working for.
Of course, we don’t really know whether any of that’s actually the case. This is all just speculation on our part. But we have no choice but to speculate because PHMSA, when offered the chance to sit down and talk with us in good faith to explain all of this for itself, just shut the door in our face, rather than face some hard questions and listen to some legitimate citizen concerns.
Around here, we’ve got a name for that sort of avoidance, for the strategy of avoiding, as much as you can, communications with your critics, evading tough questions, pretending like the unhappiness and dissatisfaction isn’t happening and maybe after a while it will all just go away: we call that an Enbridge Special.
Have you received your July 2013 “Construction Update” from Enbridge? Ours arrived just after our return from Washington D.C. Fortunately, it doesn’t contain any vital information that we could have shared with our legislators. Plus, we figure they’re all on the Enbridge mailing list anyway.
Still, it’s a pretty interesting edition of the monthly newsletter. For this one, it appears that Enbridge’s vast public relations brain trust huddled together in a conference room and generated a brand new strategy. You see, having learned (apparently) that nobody much trusts the things uttered by the people who run the company (or formerly ran it), or the disingenuous spinmeisters who represent the company (there are lots and lots of them), or the land agents (including the fictional ones) who are landowners’ primary interface with the company, they’ve decided to lean on the only group of people associated with this project left with any sort of credibility at all: the construction workers. It’s right there in the newsletter’s main headline:
The accompanying letter from Project Director (is this a promotion? he used to be Project Manager) Thomas Hodge is all about the construction crews, focusing heavily on how they’ll be “spending their paychecks locally for goods and services.” Enbridge has even provided some real-life testimonials, from honest-looking employees at various local businesses, about what swell people the construction workers are: “a phenomenal group,” according to somebody at the Cracker Barrel in Brighton; “nothing but respectful,” according to someone from the Outlet Marathon store in Howell; “good guys,” according to a person at a clothing store in Howell.
Of course, we don’t doubt any of this. As regular readers of this blog know, we’ve spent a great deal of time ourselves talking with these construction workers. Obviously, they’re “good guys” (and women, we would add!). Who said otherwise? Who ever would have assumed otherwise? Shouldn’t this go without saying? Did the people at the Outlet Marathon Store in Howell think they’d be difficult to work with? Disrespectful? A bunch of desperadoes and outlaws, like those roving bands of violent thugs and ruffians terrorizing people along secluded highways that always show up in post-apocalyptic movies? Or does Enbridge think that the bad reputation they’ve got derives not from the people actually running the company, but from the people at the very bottom of the pay scale, the workers in the trenches? If that’s the case, they are sorely mistaken. Frankly, we’ve seen lots of ill-conceived PR tactics from Enbridge over the past year. But mainly that’s because they tend to be so very misleading. This one, by contrast, is just bizarre.
Which is not to say that it isn’t also misleading. The other striking thing about the newsletter is that it is packed full of vague, unverifiable claims: construction crews “are comprised of about 60 percent specialized pipeline workers and 40 percent hired from local union halls”; local merchants “will see an economic boon estimated at $330,000 a week along the route”; “the contractor is anticipated to spend up to $665,000 a week on consumables related to the project.”
We hardly have the energy to interrogate this. Can we see the hiring rolls documenting that 60/40 split (it certainly does not jibe with our experience talking with workers)? Who has made that $330k estimate? And what if the reality falls short of that estimate? Will Enbridge make up the difference? Similarly, who anticipates the contractor spending all that money? Spending it where? On what “consumables”? (We heard one story earlier this summer of how a local farmer in our neighborhood had to throw a fit to get Enbridge to buy straw from him, rather than bringing it in from much farther away.) And what about that picture and caption of the Courtyard Marriott? How many pipeline workers are really staying there, we wonder?
We’ll wrap this up with just one more observation, something we have never said before on this blog. And the reason we’ve never said it is because, unlike Enbridge, we generally don’t like making unverifiable claims. It’s why, as we’ve said many times, we don’t tell even a fraction of the many terrible stories of terrible Enbridge behavior that we hear about– not because we don’t trust the people telling us these stories; generally we do. It’s just that we like to be careful– which is what respect for the truth demands. Nevertheless, we will share this, since it’s based not on hearsay, but on our own experience:
In our conversations with dozens of the “phenomenal,” “decent,” “respectful,” “good guys” (and women) working construction on this pipeline in our neighborhood, there have been two common refrains from these people, two things that always seem to come up in our conversations with them. The first thing is that they are ready to go home (to Oklahoma and Texas and Arkansas and Mississippi, rarely to somewhere here in Michigan). Most of them have been here for a very long time. They’re tired and they miss their families and friends. The second thing– and this is why Enbridge’s latest PR strategy is not only bizarre, but deeply, cruelly ironic– is that they have no love and very little respect whatsoever for Enbridge. Repeatedly, we have heard from them– completely unprompted by us– that while they may like their jobs and take pride in their work, they would not say the same about Enbridge.
As we mentioned yesterday, we spent a couple of days early this week in Washington D.C., speaking with Michigan legislators and State Department officials. That trip, hosted by the National Wildlife Federation, will be the subject of our newest series– stay tuned for detailed accounts of the conversations we had.
For now, we will note that when we met with representatives from the offices of Senators Stabenow and Levin and Representative Gary Peters, the subject of those piles of petroleum coke at that facility on the Detroit River inevitably came up– partly because the staffers wanted to use it as an opportunity to demonstrate what they’re doing to protect the citizens and the natural resources of Southeast Michigan. We’re glad for that– especially since, as you may have seen by now, the pet coke problem is far from solved. Just this week, a chilling video emerged of clouds of pet coke dust blowing across the Detroit River. Dave Bagatello blogging at the Windsor Star has more details on the story. But here’s the video. Eerily, it put us in mind of the “feathery plume,” the “black billowing cloud,” the “airborne toxic event” of Don DeLillo’s marvelous, disturbing novel White Noise:
Recently, we linked to reports that storage those piles o off pet coke would be suspended, temporarily, at least. We expressed a bit of skepticism about this at the time. And sure enough, reports this week seem to suggest that Detroit Bulk Storage would very much like to continue storing the stuff, which has become a major source of income for them– a source of income that only stands to increase once the “replacement” of Line 6B is completed, since the new line will significantly increase the amount of dilbit– the source of that pet coke– making its way to the Marathon refinery in Detroit.
So it’s good news, as we were told in our D.C. meetings and as the Detroit Free Press is reporting this morning that Senators Stabenow and Levin have introduced a companion bill in the Senate to the one Representative Peters introduced in the House earlier this month. The bill calls on the Department of Health and Human Services and the Environmental Protection Agency ” to conduct a study on the public health and environmental impacts of the production, transportation, storage, and use of petroleum coke, and for other purposes.” (The full text of the House bill is here.)
Now, we think that studies are very good things. We believe in actions grounded in facts and sound science. For those reasons, we strongly support the legislation and commend our Michigan officials for their efforts. But we also believe in caution and prudence when it comes to matters of public health and environmental impacts. And in this case, that means that we ought not to wait for indisputable evidence for public health risks and environmental damage before prohibiting enormous piles of nasty, black, powdery residue, the by-product of dirty tar sands oil. Rather, indisputable evidence that those piles pose no risks whatsoever– an extremely remote possibility, we suspect– ought to be an absolute condition for storing them. The legislation Congress will consider (hopefully, if the bills make it out of committee!) includes no such conditions. Nor are such conditions required, as we understand it, by the DEQ, from whom Detroit Bulk Storage is supposed to obtain permits. But of course, the DEQ, like most of our state and federal regulatory agencies, is weak and mostly gutless.
Oh, and speaking of requirements, if it were up to us, we would impose a simple requirement on anyone publicly discussing the matter of pet coke in Detroit (exempting, of course, those residents in Detroit and Windsor directly affected by the stuff): you don’t get to write about it without at least a sentence that states very clearly how that stuff gets here in the first place: It starts with the mining of tar sands oil up in Alberta, Canada, which entails the destruction of thousands of acres of carbon-absorbing, ecologically rich Boreal forest. It then makes its way through a network of pipelines owned and operated by Enbridge, running across the state of Michigan, through our backyard!, and down to the refinery in Detroit, where the tar sands oil is processed, leaving behind–as the filthy byproduct of already filthy fuel– petroleum coke. That’s the stuff that then gets sent to the bank of the Detroit river where it gets blown into the air, into the river, and onto people’s balconies.
In other words, without Line 6B, there would be no pet coke problem in Detroit. If you’re concerned about one, you should be concerned about the other.