2013 Year in Review

2013 Year in Review

Happy Holidays everyone!

We hope you’ve all enjoyed some time with friends and family and traveled safely (if you traveled) over the past week or so. And we especially hope that those of you in Michigan who had to suffer through the untimely power-outages found a way to keep warm. Miraculously, we were unaffected, although most of our neighbors had to wait until Christmas day for power to be restored. On the bright side, at least the ice storm wasn’t an inconvenience caused by Enbridge…

Speaking of Enbridge, we don’t know about you, but we haven’t received any holiday gifts this year (last year it was yummy cherry-related things). Evidently, they think they’re through with us, which of course is not at all the case, given the quality and timing of so-called “restoration” work this fall.

But we’re not looking forward right now. The end of the year is a time for reflection. So in lieu of something more original, we thought we’d try our hand at the traditional end-of-the-year Top Ten list. We’ve sifted through our archives for what we think are the most important and/or best posts of 2013. Here they are, ranked and everything:

10. Line 6B Earns Pulitzer Prize. One of the most exciting stories of the year– and it only ranks #10 because it’s not material original to this blog– was the announcement that scrappy online news outlet Inside Climate News won the Pulitzer Prize for national reporting. The prize was awarded to Elizabeth McGowan, Lisa Song, and David Hasemyer for their series of reports on the rupture and aftermath of Line 6B. If you’ve never read “The Dilbit Disaster,” please leave this blog now and devour every last riveting word (then come back). In addition to the quality of the reporting, we have been particularly impressed and appreciative with the way that the crack ICN team of reporters have stayed on the story, bringing some much-needed attention to the tribulations of landowners. We are especially grateful that this humble blog has appeared in some of their award-winning reports, as well as others in their continuing coverage. We take every chance we get to congratulate them and thank them for their outstanding journalism.

9. Pet Coke. You might recall those awful-looking piles of black powder that appeared on the banks of the Detroit River last spring, blowing dust onto people’s balconies and everywhere else. We certainly didn’t break the story; that honor goes to some Canadian reporters. But we followed it closely. Eventually, it made national news— although much of the concern in the national press had to do with the fact that the stuff was owned by the Koch Brothers, those bête noires of liberal groups. We were less interested in the partisan political side of the story, though, than with the fact that the petroleum coke is a byproduct of the tar sands refining process. And here in Michigan, we all know how the stuff that Marathon refines down to that nasty black soot got here in the first place: straight through Enbridge’s Line 6B. This story had a marginally happy ending; the piles were moved elsewhere. Unfortunately, the real problem is far from resolved. The stuff just went to foul up somebody else’s backyard.

8. Red Herrings. Perhaps the biggest, or at least the most important, story of the year (for reasons we’ll describe in a later entry) was the Michigan Public Service Commission’s approval of phase two of the Line 6B replacement way back in January. At that time, the Detroit Free Press’s Eric Lawrence wrote a couple of articles, one of which featured– to our surprise– a couple of very Enbridge-friendly landowners. Of course, as we’ve said for a long time, we don’t begrudge any landowners good experiences with Enbridge. In fact, we wish every landowner had a good experience with them; that’s why we started this blog in the first place. But what bothered us about these two particular landowners (one of whom Enbridge adopted for a while as a sort of mascot) were their terribly ill-informed and misleading remarks about the possible fruits of the project and about their fellow landowners. We took these misleading remarks– very similar to the comments of plenty of other know-nothings about the project– as an occasion to point set the record straight.

7. How Not to Write About Line 6B. Among the things that have most gotten under our skin over the past year and a half has been either the lack of press coverage of all things pertaining to the Line 6B “replacement” or the poor quality of it. Of course, this isn’t to say there hasn’t been some good coverage as well (see #10 above): at the local level, Susan Bromley of the tiny Brandon Citizen and Jennifer Bowman of the Battle Creek Enquirer, for example, have done some excellent work (I could name others as well). On the other hand, there has been some truly hapless coverage and/or opinion offered as well: witness this woeful op-ed from Indiana, for instance. Late this summer and this fall, we saw some more subtle examples of how not to write about the project– not examples of people stating opinions about things they know very little about, but well-intentioned reporters covering the story simplistically, without adequate knowledge or context– coverage that, in our view, does a terrible disservice to the public and to people directly affected by the project.

6. IJNR Kalamazoo River Institute. Speaking of journalists, in May, we had the wonderful opportunity to join a large group of them as part of a program hosted by the extraordinary Institute for Journalism & Natural Resources. Among other things, we had the opportunity to take a canoe trip down the Kalamazoo River. It was our first trip to the river and the sites affected by the spill, like Talmadge Creek; it was our first eyewitness view of the cleanup. The IJNR experience was fantastic, but the experience of the river– which, at first glance, seem impressively clean, was rather eerie. In this installment of the series, we explain why.

So there’s your bottom five. We’ll save the top five for a second installment– coming very soon.

News roundup

News roundup

Although there hasn’t been a whole lot of news directly related to the Line 6B replacement lately, we’ve been putting together a list of notable items worthy of your attention. We present them here, bulleted (in honor of Carl Weimer) and in no particular order:

  • From Canada, Enbridge’s Line 9 reversal project– which has been somewhat contentious and has lots of landowners reasonably wary— took a step forward by earning the approval of a Quebec National Assembly committee. On the bright side, our friend Richard Kuprewicz is on hand to apply a little pressure to Enbridge’s rosy claims. Specifically, Rick suggests that Enbridge might want to do some hydrotesting on that line to ensure its safety. In response, Enbridge whines about how much that would cost them.
  • Also from Canada, a Prince George paper reports this week on Enbridge vice-president of pipeline integrity Walter Kresic telling a Northern Gateway Community Advisory Board about all of the fancy new tools and gadgets (perhaps they’ll use these on Line 9) they use to check the integrity of their pipelines. Most striking about his remarks is this howler about the Marshall spill: “The [inspection] technology wasn’t as good as it should have been,” he said. “Any of the new tools would have seen [the problem]” Technically speaking, that is surely a true statement. What makes it outrageous, however, is that it implies that the older technology failed to detect problems on that line. But that, of course, is just plain untrue. The fact is, as we’ve noted many times– it’s all right there in the NTSB report– that OLD tools saw the problems on that line FIVE YEARS before it ruptured. But Enbridge chose not to act on those findings. The problem in Marshall– we all know it by now, which is why it’s astonishing to hear Enbridge executives still peddling this technology-will-save-us nonsense– wasn’t with the technology, it was with Enbridge’s callous, hapless safety culture.
  • Back in the states, we were very interested in this story from South Portland, Maine. The City Council there voted to prohibit the shipment of tar sands oil through the city’s port. This is a story with all sorts of important and fascinating dimensions. For instance, it’s a pretty good illustration of how failures of leadership at the state and federal level are leaving municipalities to attend to these matters for themselves. It’s also interesting in terms of the role of local authority (there was a panel on this topic featuring the great Rebecca Craven at last month’s PS Trust conference) as these large corporations seek to expand tar sands production all over the country and beyond. Unsurprisingly, the American Petroleum Institute seems to want to limit that authority as much as possible. In response the Council’s decision, API shrieks and thumps its chest like a big gorilla putting on some threatening display.
  • Over at the terrific DeSmog Blog, our new friend (we met at this year’s PS Trust conference) Julie Dermansky has an excellent report on the great landowners panel featuring our other friends Ann Jarrell, David Gallagher, and Jennifer Baker. Like those landowners did at the conference, Julie nails it.
  • There’s been a little bit of Keystone XL news this week as well. Inside Climate News reports on a letter to President Obama signed by a number of U.S. and Canadian celebrities and notable figures urging the President to reject TransCanada’s permit. Our favorite names on the list? Rocker Joan Jett, whose I Love Rock ‘n Roll was the very first record album we ever bought, and Yann Martel, author of the excellent novel Life of Pi.
  • And speaking of KXL and people we admire, Omaha.com has a story about a bunch of courageous, principled landowners in Nebraska who steadfastly refuse TransCanada’s ever-lucrative entreaties. Our friend Jane Kleeb of Bold Nebraska has the money quote: “Our landowners are stubborn and independent, which is good,” Jane says. Those landowners have our respect, admiration, and support.
  • Closer to home, you may have seen the story this week about some large “tar balls” discovered in the Kalamazoo River (as reported on in two excellent Canadian outlets, The Tyee and the Vancouver Observer). Some concerned activists found the creepy-looking rocks in the river recently and were understandably alarmed. It turns out, however, that the rocks are actually natural formations. Of course, there are still plenty of unsettled questions about the effects of the spill and cleanup on the river and on people’s health. But it appears that there are not, in fact, giant tar balls in the river (whew!).
  • Speaking of citizen activists, those tireless MICATS are urging people to turn out to support the “felonious 4” activists who were arrested earlier this year for their protests that stopped work at Enbridge construction sites. They’d like to see charges against the activists dropped. So would we. If you’d like to support them, the hearing is set for January 15 at the Ingham County Courthouse.
  • Finally– and we hope you’re sitting down for this one– our friend Beth Wallace has apparently started her very own blog! Evidently, guest-blogging here just wasn’t enough for a hero like her (although she’s welcome to post here as often as she likes!), so she has struck out on her own. Her first post is a follow-up to the recent excellent news about the letter Michigan’s U.S. senators wrote to PHMSA about Enbridge’s Line 5 that runs through the Straits of Mackinac. Needless to say, what Beth has to say on the matter is crucially important and hits the bullseye.
Cass County Work Update

Cass County Work Update

Last week, we brought you the latest in our series of “Landowner Stories,” this one from our friend Patricia Maurice over in Cass County. Enbridge has been working furiously over there, often late into the night and making all sorts of terrible racket. In the process, they’ve been distressing landowners like Patricia who have little to no idea of what’s been going on and why they have been working all night. This is part of the pattern of poor communication that we’ve been talking about here on the blog for more than a year. Why Enbridge can’t understand that the vast bulk of landowner anxiety, distress, and worry– not to mention bad feelings toward Enbridge– could be eliminated simply by keeping people honestly informed, we have never been able to fathom (though we have worked hard at fathoming).

For a long time, the bizarre dynamic that has followed from Enbridge’s failure simply to keep people informed is that people wind up contacting us, at which point we try to contact Enbridge, even though Enbridge long ago appears to have adopted a policy of not communicating with us about most matters (with the exception of things that happen on our property, causing a frenzy of emails and phone calls on our part to everyone we can think of…). The end result is that nothing really gets answered, everybody winds up even more frustrated, and we have no choice but type up long blog posts about how awful Enbridge is at communicating with landowners.

Lately, however, this seems to have changed a little. Specifically, Enbridge spokesperson Jason Manshum seems to have been given the green light to actually respond to us (we noted this last month). And he has continued to do so. (We have no idea what prompted this remarkable change.) This is a genuinely positive step forward and we think that Manshum would agree that our correspondence has been pretty painless and perfectly amicable; we’re polite and everything!– though we are also persistent and don’t accept non-answers. The crazy thing is that this is almost all we have ever asked for: honest, open, prompt, forthright communication. That alone could solve so very many of Enbridge’s problems with landowners. (Again, why they haven’t just taken our word for that and corrected the problem is beyond anyone’s comprehension). As we said to Jason just today: if this keeps up, we might just run out of things to blog about…

All of which is a very long-winded way of saying that Manshum explained the Cass County situation to us. They have been doing various tests on the pipe over there, hydrotesting in particular. The thing about hydrotesting a pipeline is that once you start, you can’t stop until the test is completed (which takes some time). And when other inline inspection tools (like smart pigs) run through a line, the line has to be constantly monitored until those tools are removed. So that means– particularly on these short winter days– that the tests might well need to run through the night. We ran this explanation through some of our knowledgeable expert friends and it is indeed true (it’s in the actual federal regulations). We’re grateful to Jason Manshum for explaining the situation to us.

Of course, this doesn’t explain everything that has had Patricia concerned. And it certainly doesn’t change the fact that not having explained this or anything else to residents of the area like Patricia Maurice caused those residents all sorts of sleepless nights and all kinds of (possibly) needless worry and turmoil. That remains inexcusable.

Breaking News: Michigan Pols Speak Out!

Breaking News: Michigan Pols Speak Out!

As longtime readers of this blog know, we think that the silence and inaction of Michigan’s elected officials at both the state and federal levels in the three years since the Marshall spill has been shameful. In fact, the seeming indifference of one prominent Michigan political figures was a large part of what caused us to start this blog in the first place. And the situation is even worse when one considers how other states and municipalities have responded to disasters like the one in Marshall. In Bellingham, Washington, they started the Pipeline Safety Trust. In San Bruno, California, the city filed suit against PHMSA and the state overhauled its Public Utilities Commission. In Mayflower, Arkansas a U.S. Representative has taken up the cause of affected residents. And in North Dakota, the governor is forming an advisory panel on pipeline safety. In Michigan after the Kalamazoo River spill? Nothing.

Sadly, Line 6B continues to be invisible to Michigan officials. Another Enbridge pipeline, however, finally has them taking some notice. You might recall that our friend Beth Wallace (hero) of the National Wildlife Federation has been working very hard to raise awareness of the threats to the Great Lakes posed by Enbridge’s Line 5 running beneath the Straits of Mackinac. Indeed, that danger was one of the topics we discussed with staffers on our trip this summer to Washington, D.C.

Well, finally, due in no small part (perhaps entirely!) to Beth’s efforts, Michigan Senators Carl Levin and Debbie Stabenow have sent a letter to PHMSA asking the agency to ensure that the line is safe. The Free Press has the story. The full letter is available here.

This is a good first step. We applaud Senators Stabenow and Levin for this effort. We’re still a little apprehensive– PHMSA doesn’t exactly move quickly. But this is nevertheless a heartening bit of news.

News of the Weird, part 4

News of the Weird, part 4

A long time ago, we started a series of “weird” Line 6B news items. Honestly, we kind of forgot about it. But an odd report from the Times of Northwest Indiana has given us reason to revive the series:

Apparently, a bunch of construction workers got into something of a scuffle on Monday. The reasons for the altercation aren’t altogether clear, though it appears to have something to do with layoffs. However, because we have heard so many strange, somewhat troubling stories–  ultimately unverifiable (which is why we’ve never written about them)–  about Precision Pipelines, we can’t help but wonder what else might be going on. We have no idea, of course, but it would be interesting to get to the bottom of this.

We do know this, though: we don’t like seeing unhappy workers any more than we like seeing unhappy landowners. In fact, in our view, the labor practices on this project is one of its biggest un-covered and unwritten stories (a whole series of them, we suspect). If we had more time and an investigative team, we’d be all over it. Perhaps a young, hungry, enterprising, creative, hardworking journalist wants to take on that job (yeah, we’re looking at you Jennifer Bowman).