On Backyards, Property, and New Mythologies of Belonging

On Backyards, Property, and New Mythologies of Belonging

[Note: this is the latest entry in a new series of short essays by Environmental Humanities scholars, writers, and activsts on the theme “Backyards”]


a. Social Science Fiction as Method

In Four Futures: Life After Capitalism, Peter Frase distinguishes between the genre of “futurism” and what he names “social science fiction.” Futurism strives to directly predict the future, “obscuring its inherent uncertainty and contingency” (26). Social science fiction, by contrast, mixes the imaginative capacity of science fiction to speculate about a world that might be, with the insights of social science about how actual lived experience is shaped by structural forces such as the political economy and social class. “To put it another way,” Frase writes, “it is always more interesting to read an account that derives the general from the particular (social theory) or the particular from the general (science fiction), rather than attempting to go from the general to the general (futurism) or the particular to the particular (conspiracism)” (27).

The project of the faculty and participants in this year’s Banff Research in Culture (BRiC) was to collectively think about the future from the particular to the general. BRiC is a themed research residency that brings together artists and researchers for several weeks at the Banff Centre for Arts and Creativity. This year’s theme was “2067,” a date in the near future that was posed as a challenge to the liberal and nationalist self-certainties we knew would circulate during Canada’s 150th anniversary year. The affective fantasies and lived limits that shape our lives are the launchpad from which we speculate about the future-that-is-coming-to-be. We believe that to conjecture about the future necessitates theorizing the present, with all the blindness and ignorance that is constitutive of that attempt.

And so, in this post, we choose to offer up scenes that emerge from our own experiences as city dwellers, as professors, and as parents and children. From our similar subjectivities as first-generation academics, we tell some stories about the disconnect between our habits and desires. It is in telling stories that we create myths, myths that shape our perceptions and our praxis, myths that animate the reshaping and reimagining of political possibilities, both for the present and futures still to come.

b. Backyards (or, water, energy, housing, dreams, collectivity…)

Imre: I decide to get out of the house and go for a walk. It’s Sunday, late afternoon. Patches of thick clouds threaten rain. But they’re high enough, luckily, to let the Rockies peak over the horizon and into the suburb my mother calls home.

Calgary, Alberta is a city of suburbs. They ring every North American city, but not every city has them so nakedly on display as here on the bald, dry Prairies. The population density of Calgary is about one-third that of Toronto, one fourteenth that of Paris. Despite hopes that Calgary might grow denser over time, expectations are that 80% of growth over the next 20 to 30 years will be via suburban expansion on what is Treaty 7 territory. Where my mother lives the classic Canadian suburban houses jut their cavernous garages in front of the actual house, making it clear that automobiles have primacy here.

The original suburb, Levittown, New York, is only 70 years old this year. It was designed to manage the social and political problem of returning veterans in need of homes. The suburb was also a racist project, intended to create all white communities, repeating in a new form the geographies of privilege and privatism long connected to property ownership. Today, in an era in which the demands they make on the environment are understood to be enormous and indefensible, suburbs are still burgeoning, especially in cities with poor transit service, and large immigrant populations.

I cut down side streets and through alleys until I reach one of the redeeming features of these newer suburbs, which is a network of snaking bike and walking paths that lead to the Bow or Elbow River. The path closest to my mother’s home is in a long green space that takes the place of some of the alleyways. There isn’t much to it—a small playground here, small trees plopped down there—and normally I hurry through these spaces until I can reach the river. Today, I slow down, drawn to the backyards I pass by.

The suburban backyard is a landscape of dreams of leisure and community, of family and nature. Sometimes people move to the suburbs due to the escalating costs of urban cores, or because they want a bigger space to raise their children. They seldom move because they want to mow the lawn; more often they move because of the promise of outside space that belongs to them and them alone. Backyards are small, private spaces dense with fantasies of the good life.

Wood slat or chain link fences separate the Calgary backyards. The artifice of these yards is as palpable as that of the parks. The grass (which is, by the way, the most widespread crop in the U.S. after maize and wheat) is neatly mowed. One after another, row-by-row, these backyards corral individuals and families into discrete pockets of activity and belonging. I occasionally see people in their yards, but for the most part they’re empty. The path is empty, too—no cyclists, no joggers. 

Will backyards continue, in the future, to define a certain vision of the good life?

We may not see the political when we look at these tidy little parcels of land, but in some ways, backyards are amongst the most deeply political spaces on the planet. Many of the problems troubling the world come together here, in this aspirational space of childhood adventures and weekend BBQs. Backyards are about property, availability of housing, abundant resources, and access to jobs and money. They signal the (apparent) reality of a middle class existence without conflict, and the appropriate division of work and leisure. Backyards transform driving into a quotidian practice, a way of moving about that is hard to imagine ever coming to an end (didn’t we always have cars)? For many immigrants, like our own parents, backyards are signs of having, at last, made it.

Will backyards continue, in the future, to define a certain vision of the good life? In Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow, Yuval Noah Harari writes: “In the suburbs of Doha and Dubai, middle-class families pride themselves on their lawns. If it were not for the white robes and black hijabs, you could easily think you were in the Midwest rather than the Middle East” (64). Science fiction films and novels rarely imagine the future of backyards (there are no backyards in Blade Runner 2049, and apparently, in its vision of Los Angeles, there never were any). Perhaps they are such banal spaces that writers and directors jettison them as extraneous to the future (though sometimes, as in Octavia Butler’s Parable of the Sower, they become necessary sites of cultivation and survival). But this is a mistake. A failure to politicize backyards is a failure to contend with some of the most powerful affective forces that animate social life today.

c. Youth and Property

Eva-Lynn: My son Sebastian stays a night with Imre’s mother. He wakes up in the morning to the birds chirping loudly outside his window. No cars. No people walking by. He drinks a cup of coffee on the back deck, looking out over the grass, the cherry tree, and the raspberry bushes. “Wow, this is really nice,” he says. “Who knew?”

Our children have little experience of the suburban spaces in which Imre and I grew up. They were raised in cities, and have had the benefits of travel to different cities and a university education. These young men are acutely aware of their privileged upbringings, and yet are overwhelmingly anxious about what they will do when they graduate with their liberal arts degrees, where they will find work, and where they will be able to afford to live.

Whenever Sebastian comes to Toronto from Montreal, he says that he likes the city and feels at home. The problem is, he doesn’t have a home there. I sold the only one he had. His dad and I divorced, and I couldn’t afford to maintain our dilapidated house, with squirrels in the roof and raccoons perched in the tall trees in the overgrown backyard. It was in the desirable west end, near Dufferin Grove, a neighbourhood that is known as “more hippie than hipster.” Yet my kids’ geographical centre was not the predominantly white farmer’s market and park, but the large apartment complex across the street from our house. It may have detracted from the residential street feel of the rest of the neighbourhood, but Sebastian and his little brother took advantage of the flat mown grass to play soccer with the Tamil, Tibetan, Chinese, Somalian, Mexican, and Syrian kids that lived there. In the summer, women sat on the benches and chatted, pushing strollers back and forth to quiet their babies. It was an open urban yard, a place for the residents, crowded in their rental units, to congregate. Recently I asked Sebastian what happened to Shiv and Shradup, two of his friends from the buildings. The first still lives there, but the second has moved to the suburbs of Mississauga.

Our house went for well over asking in the crazy Toronto real estate market. In an instant, my debts were erased. I had money for university for the boys, and for a down payment. Imre and I bought into a 12-unit townhouse development built on top of a mid-century social services building. That space was retrofitted to house two start-up companies, full of tech guys and foosball tables. We live where the provincially funded daycare used to be. After we’d moved in, a Portuguese hydro guy came to check our meter, and said that he had rolled his trike in what was now our living room.

It’s a beautiful condo, but it doesn’t work as a space to live when the three boys are back in Toronto. Last summer Sebastian came for two weeks and slept in a tent on the rooftop terrace. When he left, he said, “Thanks for having me, Mom.”

I said, “You don’t have to say thank you, this is your home too!”

Neither of us is sure that it is, though. He has one drawer where he leaves an extra pair of jeans and some t-shirts. That’s it. Everything else he owns is in his shared rental house in Montreal. So what’s he going to do when he graduates next year? Where is he going to live?

Imre and I both left home to go to university, and never went back. Neither of us thinks that kids should live with their parents after they leave home. I think that maybe we don’t get it. Don’t get what it is to be a young adult in a city like Toronto, where the rental market is small and the prices unaffordable (the average rent for a one-bedroom apartment in the second quarter of 2017 was $1,861). Don’t get what it is to graduate with a liberal arts degree instead of Commerce or Business. Don’t get how culturally specific and privileged our assumptions are. Don’t get how lonely we will be once the youngest leaves.

If Sebastian feels at home in a city that he can’t afford, where do we feel at home? We’ve always thought of ourselves as city people, thrilled by the chaotic energy of Mexico City or Beijing. We believe in density, in the artistic and creative energies let loose by cosmopolitan urban modernity (even if we don’t believe in Richard Florida’s vision of the creative economy). Yet the gentrification of Toronto leaves us unsure of whether we really are urban—with dense condo development coming at the expense of rental units, community housing, and social services; with the growth of entrepreneurial hubs and start-ups and hipster shops; with immigrants moving to the suburbs, with its crummy infrastructure and woeful public transit.

We kid ourselves that what we have is what we deserve.

We don’t understand where the young people that frequent these places get their money, though we know that the twenty-somethings living in our building are subsidized by their parents. The young adults that we know—PhD students, sessional instructors, new parents, recent graduates—are moving to Hamilton or other smaller cities, trying to buy into those markets before they, too, hyper inflate.

Buying—a city like Toronto is about private property. We middle-class professionals imagine the need to own the place that we live in, and worry that our children won’t be able to. If we don’t own it—and we don’t because the bank does with the size of our mortgages nowadays—someone else does. We seem to accept that, despite crowding, increased disparity between rich and poor, and the winnowing out of working youth in the downtown core, that it’s ok to have, for instance, empty storefronts. In our neighbourhood, businesses are forced out because of the high property costs, and then the places stay empty for months or even years. What if the city council didn’t allow this, if those spaces were immediately turned into something public? Why do we imagine that a storefront needs to continue to be used only for retail? In a city with a long winter, where are the indoor spaces to congregate that don’t entail spending money?

All of us property owners: we kid ourselves that what we have is what we deserve.

Living in our posh beautiful condo, Imre and I indulge a new fantasy, one that entails a return to the more suburban spaces of our own childhoods. We visit the town of Guelph, and are delighted by the public spaces filled with dogs and kids and people our age. We imagine having what we had wanted to avoid by buying a condo: a sprawling house with a backyard for the dog, space for friends to spend the weekend, and a basement apartment in case one of the boys needed a place to live for a year or two. The move away from the backyard finds us craving one again, to our own great surprise.

d. Towards New Mythologies of Backyards

“Myth does not deny things,” Roland Barthes’s tells us at the end of Mythologies in “Myth Today.” “On the contrary, its function is to talk about them” (143). The work of myth is to take abstract nouns—nouns like nation, justice, democracy and the individual at the centre of the debates that comprise the political—and to try to render them concrete. From being a violent, troubling invention of history, the nation, for instance, becomes something to which marginalized groups aspire, since it is imagined as the proper (and only) form for collective belonging. Barthes writes: “A conjuring trick has taken place; [myth] has turned reality inside out, it has emptied it of history and has filled it with nature, it has removed from things their human meaning so as to make them signify a human insignificance” (142-143). Put bluntly, “myth is depoliticized speech” (143)—speech that drains the political from concepts, which are then re-entered into politics as nature instead of history.

The Right is expert at the operations of myth, nudging and nuancing it to achieve its aims and outcomes. The Right has developed a deep and well-rehearsed vocabulary of myth, through which it generates appeals to common sense, produces proverbs and constructs apparently unalterable hierarchies. Like parents who respond, “Just because, that’s why!”, the Right knows how to employ tautology to render social constructions as natural givens.  Barthes describes Right-wing myth as “essential; well-fed, sleek, expansive, garrulous, it invents itself ceaselessly. It takes hold of everything, all aspects of the law, or morality, of aesthetics, of diplomacy, of household equipment, of Literature, of entertainment” (148).

What about the Left? The Left’s task has always been to show how language shapes the world, and to reveal the processes by which depoliticized speech operates to create a specific, jaundiced view of social and political structures. If myth is depoliticized language, then the Left adopts an opposite mode. But this critical task has a limit. Because of how it has configured itself in relation to myth, the Left is clumsy at making anything like a myth of its own; it can’t easily “fabulize,” remaining “stiff and literal” when it tries to generate myth in response to the Right. As Barthes puts it, “left-wing myth is inessential”:

the objects which it takes hold of are rare—only a few political notions—unless it has itself recourse to the whole repertoire of the bourgeois myths. Left-wing myth never reaches the immense field of human relationships, the very vast surface of ‘insignificant’ ideology. Everyday life is inaccessible to it: in bourgeois society, there are no ‘Left-wing’ myths concerning marriage, cooking, the home, the theatre, the law, morality, etc. Then, it is an incidental myth, its use is not part of a strategy, as is the case with bourgeois myth, but only of a tactics, or, at worst, of a deviation; if it occurs, it is as a myth suited to a convenience, not to a necessity. (147)

Barthes characterizes the Left as, at best, a kind of anti-Right, as dependent on the ideas of the Right even as it rejects them. Much of what constitutes Left politics is a softened myth of the Right (certain variants of socialism) or something akin to a left-libertarianism whose energy comes from a rejection of all that is myth. What is missing on the Left is myth as strategy or tactic. The Left cannot but see myth as artificial, constituted and so as something that has to be taken apart each and every time it is encountered.

We believe that Left-myths need to be created that are as powerful as those of the Right. The first step towards imagining them is to recognize the myths that already hold a powerful grip on us. To understand their power is to be able to create new myths that are convinced of the truths they profess, while yet holding open the critical desire to challenge myth. Might it be possible to generate a myth as powerful as that of the backyard and of property? A myth of a commons and a collectivity that can counteract the hold that this space has on our sense of what is safe, normal, and natural? This is a more deeply political act than one might have ever imagined.

Imre Szeman is co-editor of Energy Humanities: An Anthology (2017) and Fueling Culture: 101 Words for Energy and Environment (2017). On Petrocultures, a collection of his recent work, will be published in 2018.

Eva-Lynn Jagoe is author of The End of the World as They Knew It (2008) and Take Her, She’s Yours (forthcoming). She is associate professor of comparative literature and Latin American studies at the University of Toronto.


Works Cited

Butler, Octavia. Parable of the Sower. New York: Grand Central Publishing, 2000.

Barthes, Roland. Mythologies. Trans. Annette Lavers. New York: The Noonday Press, 1972.

Frase, Peter. Four Futures: Life After Capitalism. New York: Verso, 2016.

Harari, Yuval Noah. Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow. Toronto: Signal, 2016.



Plastic Pollution and the Neoliberal Arts

Plastic Pollution and the Neoliberal Arts

[Note: this is the first post in a new series of short essays by Environmental Humanities scholars, writers, and activsts on the theme “Backyards”]

A number of recent journal articles and scientific reports have sounded the alarm about the proliferation of plastic garbage. The figures are staggering. According to the Guardian, humans bought 480 billion plastic bottles in 2016, with this figure expected to rise to close to 600 billion by 2021. Fewer than half of these were collected for recycling, and ultimately most of this plastic finds its way to a landfill or to the ocean. This has led to plastic pollution across the world’s oceans and beaches, as well as microplastic contamination of the food web and the hydrological cycle. Microplastics have now been detected not only in seafood, but also in consumables such as beer, honey, and sugar, and plastic particles have been found floating freely in the water we drink and the air we breathe.

Many scholars in the environmental humanities have been considering this issue—from Patricia Yaeger’s 2010 essay in PMLA to more recent work by Stacy Alaimo and Michelle Huang— as have a number of artists working across a variety of media. Chris Jordan, for example, in a series of photographs that has become iconic within the contemporary environmental imaginary, documents the shocking accumulation of plastic in the stomach contents of decomposing Pacific seabirds, while others have incorporated plastic detritus directly into their work, from Judith and Richard Lang’s plastic assemblages to installation pieces like Pam Longobardi’s Bounty, Pilfered (2014) and Mark Dion’s Cabinet of Marine Debris (2013).

Pam Longobardi, Bounty, Pilfered (2014). Fisher Museum of Art, University of Southern California, 2015.

At the College of Wooster, where I work, students have taken up this problem as it has manifested itself in our communal backyard, through both works of public art and political engagement with institutional policy. In 2013, students strung together paper cups across the campus to draw attention to the problem of single-use disposable containers, and that same year they organized to ban the sale of bottled water on campus. As part of the latter effort, the student environmentalist group Greenhouse crafted an enormous water bottle out of chicken wire and filled it with a week’s worth of bottled water purchases, as a means of rendering visible the sheer magnitude of the problem even at a small liberal arts college. The visual aid helped to draw a sufficient number of signatures to the group’s petition to the administration, and the effort to ban bottled water was ultimately successful—with one notable exception: to this day, SmartWater—a product consisting of “vapor distilled water and electrolytes for taste”—remains on sale in vending locations across the college.

Mark Dion, Cabinet of Marine Debris (2013). Fisher Museum of Art, University of Southern California, 2015.

While the elimination of all electrolyte-free bottled water constitutes at least a symbolic victory for student environmental activists, SmartWater’s continuing presence on campus is indicative of a deeper problem. SmartWater remains on the shelves because the college is bound to an exclusive beverage agreement with the Coca-Cola Company, which “worked with us”—as the director of campus dining and conference services euphemistically put it—to phase out bottled water on campus. But that phasing-out ultimately applied only to the Dasani brand of “purified water”—itself weirdly “enhanced with minerals for a pure, fresh taste”—while SmartWater remained available. In this regard “working with us” amounted to effectively disregarding students’ actual concerns and undermining their efforts to reduce plastic waste.

But as Laura Merrell, a student at the college at the time, astutely noted in a letter to the student paper, even if the effort had been a complete success, and SmartWater and Dasani had both been removed from campus, all the other Coca-Cola products—bottled, as we know, in plastic—would still have remained. If the college was truly committed to confronting the problem of plastic pollution, Merrell wondered, then “why stop at water?” Why remove “the healthy drink available in plastic bottles (water), and leave sugary, unhealthy drinks such as Coca Cola”? These are excellent questions, which get at two distinct yet related problems for colleges and universities in the age of neoliberalism: namely those of student health and well-being on the one hand, and institutional environmental impact on the other. In regard to student health, one might well wonder why any Coca-Cola product is allowed on campus at all. To extend Merrell’s logic a bit further: it has become more or less uncontroversial to ban the sale and even the use of tobacco products on college campuses, but why should we stop at cigarettes? If the well-known health risks of tobacco products have made it virtually unthinkable to sell them on campuses, why shouldn’t increasing evidence that high-sugar processed foods and beverages are responsible for accelerating epidemics of obesity, diabetes, and an array other health problems—while at the same time providing no health benefits whatsoever—justify a similar policy with respect to the harmful products (and even more harmful packaging) “soft drink” companies like Coca-Cola are pushing?

Considering the extent of the hazards to both student health and planetary ecosystems—the Coca-Cola Company alone accounts for 100 billion plastic bottles every year, making it the top offender in the crisis of plastic pollution—the most reasonable course of action would seem to be a campus ban not only on bottled water, but on all the various “beverages” with which soft drink companies flood our markets and media landscapes. But what is “reasonable” here—on my campus as it is throughout the realm of American higher education—is largely determined by what Wendy Brown has identified as an ascendant “neoliberal rationality,” one that not only “disseminates market values” into every area of contemporary life but that entails “the dramatic curtailment of public values, public goods, and popular participation in political life.” This is all exceedingly obvious in the exclusive beverage contracts to which most colleges, universities, and even public elementary and high schools are bound—contracts that often involve not only exclusive “pouring rights” for a single purveyor, but a “volume commitment” that actually requires the campus community to consume a minimum amount of product over the life of the contract. And neoliberal rationality is similarly apparent in both the achievement and the undermining of the Wooster student initiative to challenge the force of the contract and remove plastic water bottles from the campus. The removal initiative itself reflects a political imaginary circumscribed by neoliberal criteria, with environmental activism reduced to negotiation with administration and its corporate sponsor for the removal of a particular item from the array of commodities available for purchase, while the continuing presence of SmartWater reveals the concerted corporate-institutional opposition to even that attenuated effort at political activism. Given that what is at issue is quite literally a livable future—in terms of individual health and the viability of human societies under conditions of global environmental disruption—it is all too evident that the very idea of the common good has been radically subordinated to the prerogatives of the market.

“You’re going to have to answer to the Coca-Cola Company.” Stanley Kubrick, dir., Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1964)

According to this market logic as it plays out here at the college, to disassociate from Coca-Cola (or Pepsi, or whoever) would be as unthinkable as disbanding the college’s iconic troop of bagpipers. In this regard it is perhaps unsurprising that in 1997 those same bagpipers were actually featured in a Coca-Cola advertisement.

The ad implies that the fun of college, of bagpiping, and of drinking Coke are linked in a way that is all but self-evident. It shows that the cultural significance of Coca-Cola—the view of it as something to be consumed and enjoyed and celebrated, on college campuses and everywhere else—runs deeper than any contract; but this cultural significance and the logic of the contract are mutually reinforcing. Here at the college, the presumed self-evidence of Coca-Cola’s necessary role in American life works hand in glove with the ever-intensifying predominance of neoliberal rationality to undermine student activism and to shape institutional food policy, in both regards with consequences quite contrary to the notion of a common good that the liberal arts college had been intended to foster.

One way to re-center a notion of the common good on college campuses—institutional backyards to many of us—would be to reclaim control over what we literally consume there. This would require reclaiming in the first place a notion of political action beyond the neoliberal logic of consumer choice, such that the corporate sponsors of higher education could no longer curtail and undermine student agency by reshuffling the commodities in the cooler. Rather than choosing between Dasani and SmartWater, Coke and Pepsi, could we imagine a campus experience free entirely from the political, social, economic, and ecological toxicity of these corporate purveyors? Just as many campus communities, mine included, have decided that cigarettes have no place in their shops and vending machines, we could also render soft drinks—with their well-known health and environmental hazards—a thing of the past. To take such deliberate action with respect to food and drink would contribute to a conception of education as Henry David Thoreau once imagined it, as a chance “to solve some of the problems of life”—from climate change and human health to the revitalization of democracy—“not only theoretically, but practically.” By rejecting not just bottled water but beverage contracts and the beverages themselves, we would signal a commitment to confronting the linked crises of public health and planetary-scale plastic contamination, as well as the neoliberal rationality that drives them both.

John Levi Barnard is an assistant professor of English at The College of Wooster 

About that Pipeline Secrecy Bill…

About that Pipeline Secrecy Bill…

We hope everyone is enjoying the summer. We certainly are, which is why we’ve been (more than) a little neglectful of the blog of late. We hope you’ll forgive us!

Readers of this blog are probably aware of a certain anniversary that’s coming up in a couple of weeks. We’ll be remembering also. If you’re in the area, you should try to make the event.

And while you’re pondering that dark part of Michigan’s history, you might take a moment to think about how we can prevent such a thing from happening ever again. That’s a heavy task, but we can tell you one thing that won’t help: less transparency from pipeline companies.

We’re reminded of this because of a baffling recent post from our friends up at the Canadian Association of Energy and Pipeline Landowner Associations (CAEPLA). Thanks to the dedication and hard work of their founder Dave Core, they’ve been helping landowners along pipelines and protecting property rights in Canada for a long time and have done tons of good. We appreciate their efforts tremendously and respect the model they have developed, which is quite interesting.

But earlier this month, they waded into matters down here in Michigan and quickly got themselves in way over their heads. The result is a whole lot of misinformation, shoddy argumentation, and factual inaccuracies. We’re disappointed and sorry to see it. But since they’re taking issue with us specifically– well, they try to take issue with us, but they clearly don’t understand the issue or our position– we think it’s only appropriate to respond.

Honestly, there’s so much wrong with CAEPLA’s take on the proposed changes to Michigan’s FOIA laws— what we’ve been calling the Enbridge Secrecy Bill– that we hardly know where to begin. CAEPLA’s argument is convoluted and, frankly, a little bizarre. And if we didn’t know better, we’d think it was cooked up by pipeline companies themselves. In a nutshell, CAEPLA’s position is this: demanding disclosure of pipeline companies’ proprietary information is ultimately a threat to the protection of individual landowner’s personal or private information.

Now, this is both completely nonsensical and completely irrelevant to the debate at hand (over HB 4540). We explain why below. But first we want to say that virtually every sentence of the post contains something objectionable– if not just plain wrong. For that reason, we’re tempted to dissect it sentence by sentence. But that would probably make for tedious reading and this is going to be long enough as it is. So we’ll just point out three big problems:

1. CAEPLA is needlessly snarky

We’re not sure why, but CAEPLA adopts an unnecessarily snide tone, complete with industry-like caricatures and straw-man arguments. Here’s how they begin:

House Bill 4540 is being depicted as a threat to the public because it would make it more difficult for those who “are concerned about” (read: oppose) pipelines to access companies’ “secret” information.

Now, since CAEPLA takes as its example of the bill’s critics this post of ours, one might reasonably think that the quoted phrase “are concerned about” is something we wrote. But it’s not. We don’t know who are what they’re quoting. The quote seems made up so that CAEPLA can engage in that little bit of parenthetical snark, taking a shot at people who oppose pipelines. What that has to do with Michigan’s HB 4540 we have no idea. Nor do we know what pipeline CAEPLA might be referring to; evidently they just want to conjure up some phantom image of a person who opposes all pipelines. Frankly, we’re surprised by this. It’s the same tired line we’ve heard from the industry time and again. It’s disingenuous and lazy. We’ve responded to it on numerous occasions. The fact is that sometimes, for good reasons, we oppose pipelines; sometimes we don’t.

Here’s a second example of how CAEPLA paints a distorted picture of opponents of HB 4540:

Opponents of the exemption for pipeline companies argue that FOI laws are the only way to protect stakeholders – including landowners – from the growing risks associated with aging pipelines, and from the allegedly more dangerous contents coursing through them.

Again, this is nonsense. We don’t know anybody who has ever said FOIA “laws are the only way to protect stakeholders” from pipeline risks. That would be a foolish thing to argue– which is why nobody is arguing it. Opponents of HB 4540, including ourselves, have advocated many ways to protect against the risk of more pipeline incidents. Transparency is just one piece of a very complicated puzzle.

2. CAEPLA thinks apples are oranges

As we said above, the heart of CAEPLA’s argument is that HB 4540 is essentially a privacy issue. For instance, they say:

The word secret is really just another more ominous way of saying private. As in private property.  The private property of pipeline company shareholders, which of course includes proprietary information.

The word secret is not another way of saying private; it’s a way of saying undisclosed. We have no idea why CAEPLA would try to smuggle the word “private” into this discussion. Presumably, it’s meant to push all sorts of buttons, since we all know that privacy is sacrosanct. You don’t want your privacy invaded, do you? That’s actually the line that CAEPLA takes. We’re not kidding. They say so very explicitly:

Threat to Pipeline Privacy is a Threat to Your Privacy

Now that’s just plain weird. In fact, there is no way whatsoever in which this statement is true. It violates about four different logical fallacies, maybe more. Aside from its implied slippery slope (ask the pipelines to reveal their emergency response program and pretty soon you’ll be forced to reveal what goes on in your bedroom!), it conflates things that are actually quite distinct. First, it conflates the ostensible “privacy” of pipeline companies with your personal privacy. But that’s just plain false. Corporations do not have rights to personal privacy like you do. In fact, the U.S. Supreme Court just recently made that very clear. Secondly, CAEPLA conflates property rights with privacy rights. But those things, too, are very different. We don’t want to bore you, but we hope you’ll trust us when we tell you that, historically, the whole idea of a right to privacy depended upon distinguishing it from the right to property (in fact, that little bit of history is sort of a thing for us). Thirdly, it conflates pipeline companies’ proprietary information with the public records they are required to submit to state and federal governments. Those things, too, are distinct. It’s the latter that are covered by FOIA laws. The former is irrelevant.

So to sum up: property is not privacy. A corporation’s proprietary information has nothing whatsoever to do with your right to privacy. Nothing. In the same way, Michigan’s FOIA laws (especially as rewritten by HB 4540) have nothing whatsoever to do with your “personal and business documents.” There is simply no way to get from the one to the other. They’re apples and oranges. CAEPLA’s attempt to force the one on the other is at best confused and at worst a cheap ploy designed to scare you. One might even call it–to borrow a term CAEPLA applies to us– “alarmist.” In fact, if you want an example of alarmism, you really couldn’t do better than this:

But the power of government to pry open a privately owned pipeline company’s proprietary information is the same power to pry open any business’s private affairs and property, including yours.

That sounds bad, frightening even. The problem is that the government here is not prying open any company’s proprietary information. Nor is it prying open any individual’s “private affairs and property.” CAEPLA is just making this up.**

3. Which brings us to our final point: CAEPLA doesn’t understand anything at all about HB 4540 or, it appears, FOIA laws generally.

What we’re talking about here– what Michigan’s HB 4540 is about, what FOIA laws are always about– is access to public records, not to proprietary information. Opponents of HB 4540 aren’t seeking to “pry open” anything. They’re seeking to prevent pipeline companies from concealing even more information (that is, public information, such as documents submitted to government agencies) than they already do. This is CAEPLA’s biggest mistake. They appear not to understand the first thing about what HB 4540 says or why people like us think it is a very bad bill. Instead, they mischaracterize the whole debate over the bill as some attempt on the part of “opponents” to gain access to so-called “private” things they don’t already have access to, to try and “snoop” on the pipeline companies. That’s just plain silly. The debate over HB 4540 has nothing to do with “expropriat[ing] a private enterprise’s informational property.” CAEPLA is making that up, too.

Let us be extra clear on this point: nobody– NOBODY– is suggesting that pipeline companies don’t have the right (the property right) to keep certain kinds of information from the public, whether for proprietary or for security reasons. In fact, as we make very clear in the post that CAEPLA links to (which they apparently either didn’t read or didn’t comprehend), both federal and state laws already provide exemptions for that sort of information. We don’t have a problem with that.

The reason that HB 4540 is objectionable is because it goes far beyond those existing rules and laws. It would potentially allow pipeline companies to reveal even less than they reveal now. In fact, the bill’s language is so vague that it could allow pipeline companies to exempt almost anything from disclosure. And we’re not talking here about trade secrets or the emails that Enbridge executives send to their spouses, we’re talking (it bears repeating) about public records, things like emergency response procedures, the results of internal corrosion inspections, and integrity management systems– the kinds of things that would allow the public to participate in safety accountability.

To once again put this more simply: CAEPLA would have you believe that opponents of HB 4540 have embarked upon some kind of invasive endeavor to gain access to (so-called “private’) information they can’t currently access. We’re not sure if CAEPLA seriously believes that or if they are deliberately distorting the situation. Nor are we sure what CAEPLA has to gain by distorting the debate. But whatever the case, the truth is that what we really oppose is a bill that would prevent the public from gaining access to public information.

Honestly, we have no idea why CAEPLA has suddenly decided to carry water for the industry (and Enbridge in particular). Nor do we know why they suddenly decided to weigh in on matters about which they clearly don’t have even the most basic understanding. We hope they continue their good work, advocating on behalf of landowners. We applaud those efforts; we always have. But we also suggest that they might want to do a little more homework or take a little more care before weighing in on matters beyond their immediate purview.

** Even if CAEPLA’s fictional scenario were real (which it is not), here is a clear example of just how far-fetched and ill-informed it is. These are two of the existing exemptions from disclosure in Michigan’s FOIA law specifically designed to protect privacy:

“(a) Information of a personal nature if public disclosure of the information would constitute a clearly unwarranted invasion of an individual’s privacy.”

“(b) (iii) [Law enforcement records that would] Constitute an unwarranted invasion of personal privacy.”

“I’ve had a lot of promises from Enbridge…”

“I’ve had a lot of promises from Enbridge…”

A couple of weeks ago, you may recall that Enbridge announced, rather triumphantly, that they’re done with Phase Two (the final phase) of the Line 6B replacement. At the time, we pointed out that while they may be finished with the only part of the project that really matters to them– getting oil flowing through the pipe– the project is far from finished as far as landowners are concerned. In fact, a great many landowners on Phase One are STILL waiting for restoration to be completed. And they’ve been waiting a very long time.

The fact is, if Enbridge cared even half as much about the lives and properties of landowners as they do about their profits, they would have treated landowner concerns from the start with the same sense of urgency with which they treated their pipeline installation. But restoration and “making landowners whole” has always been, at best, an afterthought.

This morning, we’re pleased to say that someone is finally paying attention to this sad fact. The always-excellent Rebecca Williams at Michigan Radio’s Environment Report has the story.

“These Guys Have Treated Us Terrible”

“These Guys Have Treated Us Terrible”

Just how many landowners along Line 6B are displeased? There’s no way to know, despite Enbridge’s dissembling. A better question is how many unhappy landowners does Enbridge think is acceptable? We’ve talked to dozens. A number of them have told their stories here. How many others have chosen to simply suffer and stew silently (and perhaps helplessly)?

We raise these questions (again) because we happened to have occasion to speak with a Phase One landowner this afternoon that we don’t really know. We listened to him speak for a good 15 minutes about the awful experience he’s had with Enbridge, an experience that is still not over. (For the record, we did not bring the subject up.) At present, like so many others, he’s waiting and wondering to hear from Enbridge about any number of unsettled matters on his property. The takeaway from his 3-plus year experience with Enbridge: “These guys have treated us terrible,” he said.

As we’ve said before, for every unhappy landowner we know about who is frustrated with and angry at Enbridge, there are surely 5 more whom we have never met, who have never spoken a word publicly. This makes it awfully hard to believe Enbridge when they say they value landowner relationships.

Breaking News of the Weird: Human Skull Discovered

It may well be that various kinds of accidents are bound to happen on a pipeline project. But here’s something probably nobody expected: according to reports, Enbridge construction crews have discovered a human skull in Porter County in Indiana. The area has now been declared a crime scene. It’s not clear whether or for how long the discovery of this grisly memento mori might delay construction.


How Low Can Enbridge Go?

How Low Can Enbridge Go?

Remember that time Enbridge spokesperson Larry Springer, in a ham-fisted attempt to dismiss legitimate questions about Enbridge’s practices, described landowners and other ordinary citizens expressing perfectly reasonable concerns as “special interest groups”? That remark had us so worked up that we devoted a whole series to it (part 2, part 3, part 4). The reason we spent so much time on it– and the reason we return to it every now and then– is because it is so emblematic of the way that Enbridge views landowners, responds to criticism, and communicates with the public. Dishonest,  misleading, and offensive, Springer’s remark also appears to be deeply rooted in Enbridge’s corporate culture, and is part of a strategy (perhaps?) pioneered, but certainly deployed by Enbridge’s former CEO Patrick Daniel.

Well, Larry Springer can finally rest easy. He has at last been outdone. Meet Graham White.

If you’re paying attention to matters up in Canada– Northern Gateway, the Line 9 reversal– you may have encountered Graham White before. He’s one of Enbridge’s chief spokespersons up there (his official title has something to do with business communications and public affairs or something). He gets quoted a lot, much like Jason Manshum here in Michigan. So what is it that Graham White said that surpasses Larry Springer’s now-classically-infamous “special interest groups” comment? Well, let’s take a look:

This week, The Toronto Star ran a fantastic feature called “All Along the Pipeline,” that highlights the Line 9 reversal project and profiles a number of people, as they put it, “whose lives it passes.” It’s a really wonderful piece of journalism by The Star’s Jessica McDiarmid that nicely balances policy and humanity. We wish some reporter in Michigan (about a year ago!) would do the same for Line 6B (yet another opportunity for Jennifer Bowman!). We encourage everyone to read it.

Among those profiled is our friend Emily Ferguson, who maintains the excellent Line 9 Communities blog. The story explains Emily’s first experience with Enbridge:

Then a McMaster University student in geography and environmental studies, Ferguson went to several more. In Halton region, she asked Enbridge for an information package that had been provided to council, which included maps of Line 9’s passage through the area.

Ferguson says a company official asked her who she was working for, then agreed to send a copy — if she showed her driver’s license.

And that’s when Graham White enters the story:

Enbridge offers a different version of events: company spokesperson Graham White says “after an abrupt and confrontational approach from Ms. Ferguson,” an employee asked her who she was but did not request identification.

“We provide our information freely, there is no reason someone would have to show ID,” says White, who characterized Ferguson as “a stringent opponent of the project and an activist.”

There is so much that is wrong and deeply disturbing about this that we hardly know where to begin. But let’s start with the obvious:

Does Graham White really have any idea what Emily Ferguson’s demeanor was at an informational meeting that took place nearly a year ago? Has Graham White ever once met or spoken to Emily Ferguson, anywhere? Was he at that informational meeting to witness her conduct himself? Does he possess such a preternatural memory that he is able to recall every person who comes to every meeting that Enbridge holds all across Canada? Or does Enbridge keep some secret list of “abrupt and confrontational” people that they post somewhere on an internal server, a list that spokespersons are required to memorize so that they can instantly, on command, bring to mind the identities and actions of each and every individual on the list? Or would Graham White somehow have us believe that young Emily Ferguson, college student, was just so extremely abrupt, so extraordinarily confrontational that this incident became a permanent part of Enbridge Line 9 reversal project lore, inscribed indelibly into everyone’s memory, like the moon landing? Or could it be that Graham White is just making things up?

Or, let’s just say for the sake of argument (though we don’t believe it for a second) that Emily was “abrupt and confrontational” that day. What, then, would Graham White’s point be? That those who do not conduct themselves at informational meetings with appropriate deference are asked to identify themselves? Who makes that call and what exactly are the rules of propriety at these meetings? Are they explained before hand? Do you just have to be polite or is some particular form of obsequiousness required? Do you have to genuflect or will a simple curtsy do? Are citizens allowed to make direct eye contact with Enbridge representatives or would that be seen as too confrontational?

If those questions seem absurd, as they should, it’s to point out the absurdity of White’s attempt to mischaracterize Emily’s behavior. There is no good reason for Graham White to describe her as “abrupt and confrontational” other than a desire to cast her, needlessly and gratuitously, in a negative light. That’s clearly what he’s doing. It’s a ploy straight out of the Daniel-Springer playbook: if you can portray your critics in an unflattering way– as “special interest groups” or people who are “abrupt and confrontational”– it’s much easier to dismiss them. White does it again when he describes Emily as a “stringent opponent of the project and an activist.” What is the point of that characterization? Why does Graham White go out of his way to describe Emily in this way? Indeed, why does Graham White feel the need to characterize Emily at all? Again, the answer to that is simple: he thinks that calling her an “activist” is automatically to discredit her– in precisely the same way that Larry Springer thinks that calling people “special interest groups” automatically discredits them. It’s a cheap trick, shabby and lazy.

But if what we have here is just another specimen of what we’ve seen from other Enbridge reps, why dwell on Graham White’s snide comments? What makes White’s remarks so much worse than Larry Springer’s? Well, when Springer made his remarks, he was referring (to the extent that he was referring to anyone real, as opposed to the phantoms conjured by his own corporation’s distorted imagination) to a group of people. Springer might even say he was referring generally to everyone who has ever been critical of Enbridge in Michigan since 2010; heaven knows plenty of people have been, some of them even genuine “special interest groups.” So at least Springer has an out– not a very good one, but an out nevertheless. 

Graham White, on the other hand? He is talking specifically about one single individual, one ordinary Canadian citizen. And while we are personally mighty impressed with young Emily Ferguson, who seems to us quite formidable, exceedingly smart, talented, enterprising, and with a very bright future ahead of her, it’s not as if she is, say, Neil Young.

By contrast, when Graham White speaks, he is speaking as and for one of the largest, wealthiest, and most powerful corporations in Canada, in all of North America, in fact. Yet despite all of its wealth and power and influence, it is also, evidently, a corporation that is so petty, so thin-skinned, so defensive, so stung by even the mildest of criticisms, so unwilling to take responsibility for even the slightest of missteps, so utterly lacking in grace and humility, so stubborn, so ungenerous, and so mean-spirited that it is willing, on the basis of almost nothing, to publicly disparage a single individual for nothing more than saying what happened when she attended a meeting?

That, friends, is just plain crazy.

[Okay. Believe it or not, we’ve got even more to say about this. But since it’s already gotten a bit longer than we planned, we’ll save it for a follow-up post. Congratulations, Graham White! You’ve earned your very own series!]

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).

“Can we ever believe anything Enbridge says?”

“Can we ever believe anything Enbridge says?”

While Enbridge has decided to suspend construction activity over on the east side of Michigan, they are evidently continuing work to the west. We’ve been hearing from some more frustrated landowners over the past couple of weeks. A good example of that frustration– combined with more uncertainty and poor communication– is the subject of this latest installment of our ongoing series of landowner stories, in their own words. Exactly what’s happening in this particular neighborhood isn’t altogether clear; it appears to be testing of some sort. Whatever the case, it’s making landowners’ lives miserable:

December 7, 2013

Today, most of my day has been blown dealing with problems related to the Enbridge construction that is currently going on in my next door neighbor’s yard. We live on Dailey Road north of Edwardsburg, along the Enbridge Line 6B pipeline construction zone.  Phase 1 and phase 2 construction zones meet in our neighbor’s yard. For the last several weeks, crews have been working 24 hours a day to prepare the new phase 2 pipeline segment to be joined to the phase 1 pipeline; i.e., to make the new pipeline segment active. This has involved pumping air and/or water through the pipeline (and who knows what else is being used?). The pumping noise has been extremely loud, 24 hours a day.  On top of this, there has been a steady stream of trucks running all day and all night, making a huge amount of noise.  We wake up constantly to the beep-beep-beep of trucks backing up.  As one of my neighbors said, the noise is relentless.

This morning, I found a message on my cell phone from (?Joey Brockman?—hard to understand his name) at Enbridge warning us that sometime tonight or tomorrow night they would be blowing air and water out of the pipeline 300 feet into the air, that it would make an extremely loud noise, and that the water was likely to turn to ice.  He wanted me to know that it was just water, not a contaminant, but that it would be very loud and ice would likely form.  I spoke with some of the workers and then managed to connect with the person who had called me.  He said that it would be air, not water, and would be extremely loud.  I told him that Enbridge spokesman Tom Hodge had stated on WNDU evening news that in areas where Enbridge is working all night, they have been paying to put people up in hotels and asked why no such offer had been made to us and whether they would put us up in a hotel in anticipation of what they say will be an extremely loud noise at night. The Enbridge person said that if we wanted to stay in a hotel or to be compensated, our lawyer would have to call the Enbridge lawyers sometime on Monday. When I noted that would be after the fact, he said there was nothing they could do. He was giving us a courtesy call to warn us of the impending loud noise and associated activity but that he had no way of offering us a hotel or compensation. We’d have to wait until Monday and have our lawyer call Enbridge. Given that today is Saturday, and this is imminent, Monday will be too late.

I spoke with the local sheriff’s county dispatcher to find out whether there were any noise ordinances that could force Enbridge to do this during the day rather than at night. She told me that the same thing had happened about a year ago and that they had received a large number of phone calls of complaint and worry. She said to expect that it would be extremely loud, like a jet liner taking off right next to our house. An officer was very polite in saying that there was nothing they could do about it, but suggested that if it wakes us up, we videotape it, and that we call them if we feel that we or our home are in danger at any time. He said that we could try to file a complaint but that there are no noise ordinances in our township and that the prosecutor’s office would not prosecute Enbridge, anyways.

After wasting a good part of the day on various phone calls, and talking with some neighbors, here are my thoughts.

First, this is another example of Enbridge’s dishonesty when dealing with the public.   Enbridge spokesman Tom Hodge said on WNDU evening news last week that in areas where Enbridge is working overnight, they are putting local residents up in hotels.  That is not happening here.  As one of my neighbors put it, it’s a complete lie.  Many of us have been woken up repeatedly at night and the noise has been relentless. Now, they are even warning us of an extremely loud noise and air (potentially with water/ice) spouting 300 feet upwards, sometime in the middle of the night. But when asked, they say there is no way to put us up in a hotel… have our lawyer call Enbridge’s lawyers to ask (but after the fact).    This is another clear example of an Enbridge lie; their PR person is saying one thing on the nightly news but something completely different is being experienced by the people who actually live along the pipeline. Even when we are warned of an extremely loud noise and ask for a hotel, they say there is no way to do this.

Second, people who live along the pipeline have essentially no rights.  Even if a problem occurs, our local sheriff’s office tells us that unfortunately there is nothing they can do because the prosecutor’s office is unlikely to act against Enbridge. I must say that our local sheriff’s officers seem to be very good, caring people.

Third, the people who are working along the pipeline are making huge amounts of money (one worker today told me he is making $150,000 a year) but the people who live here are seeing our home life and property values decimated but are receiving no compensation. Enbridge and its workers care only about making a lot of money. They are not ethical in their treatment of the people who live here and pay taxes.

Fourth, Enbridge just can’t get its story straight. First, they leave a message warning of water fountaining up 300 feet and forming ice. [Think about this… high pressure water and ice cascading on our neighbor’s property with the potential for ice to be pushed at high pressure towards our home.] But, when I question their contention that it is completely safe, they change their story to say that it will involve no water, only air.  But, even a blast of air coming out of the pipeline may not be ‘safe.’  Pipelines have all sorts of coatings, some of which can contain hazardous chemicals that can get into either air or water at high pressure.

Fifth, what does this mean for our future? After they are done connecting up the pipelines, they will have to start cleaning out the old pipeline, which is full of contaminants from decades of operation. How long will that go on? How noisy will it be?  I can only assume it will be happening here, as they haven’t told us anything one way or another. How are they going to protect local families from potential air- or water-borne contaminants coming out of the old pipeline as they clean it? Obviously, they will say it is safe, but how can we believe them? As a professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering and Earth Sciences, I have learned about the long history of companies telling people that things are safe when they are not.  They have given us no information.

Sixth, I have informed WNDU repeatedly that what Tom Hodge said on their news broadcast was not correct.  I even sent them a video with sound of the horrendous noise and commotion at night. But, they have not done a follow up story questioning the PR that was broadcast on evening news. Why aren’t local journalists questioning Enbridge’s PR machine?  Will they respond to my news tip about what is supposed to go on here sometime over the next two nights? Will that response be something more than an Enbridge PR person telling lies?

Seventh, is Enbridge doing this at night because they don’t want people to see it? I’ve asked for them to tell me exactly when it will be happening, but they said it was too fluid to predict the timing. On the other hand, they say it will be at night… which can only be because they don’t want it to be during the light of day when people would see it and be able to videotape it easily. I could buy them saying that it will be sometime over the next 48 hours—but they are not sure exactly when.  But to say it will be AT NIGHT means that they are purposely doing it in the dark to keep people from seeing and taping what they are doing. That is scary.

Eighth, the workers on our neighbor’s property are working in an extremely noisy environment. Yet, they often are not wearing ear protection.  I’ve noticed when I’m out in my yard that I can often see them walking around without any ear protection. When I was there this morning, one of the workers showed me his ear protective gear in a brand-new, un-opened package.  So, who is supervising to make sure that all of the proper safety regulations are enforced?  I have earaches/ringing in my ears today after only being next to the site for 5 minutes.  But, they are there for hours on end and not always wearing ear protective gear. What other safety regulations are they not following? I plan to call OSHA on Monday to make a complaint. BTW, there were no ‘no trespassing’ signs or other warnings anywhere near the site, and I was not asked to leave. I left on my own accord because of fear of damage to my ears. What if I had been a child?

Finally, what kind of Christmas are we going to have?  Will the incessant noise and worry (of potential contamination—and who knows what else could happen at a major construction site?) go on all through Christmas as it did through Thanksgiving?  Will they offer a hotel or (better yet) compensation? After all, who wants to spend Christmas in a hotel rather than at home?  Can we ever believe anything Enbridge says?

This is only one tiny part of a long saga of our problems with Enbridge.   This is a company that is making billions of dollars and that is running a dangerous pipeline. It should be treating local citizens honestly and with integrity.  It should be following safety guidelines strictly.  It should be doing everything it can to protect the local homeowners and the environment.  It’s good that Enbridge actually called to warn us in advance; but a warning is not enough to provide homeowners the ‘peace of mind’ that Enbridge keeps talking about. And, I suspect the warning was not for our sakes but for theirs… it could be embarrassing to have a bunch of panicky homeowner phone calls to the police in the middle of the night (which apparently happened before).

December 10, 2013

This morning, we were woken up very early to an extremely loud, piercing noise throughout our house. Once it was bright enough, I walked out and took photos of the site, where Enbridge is discharging vapor into the atmosphere. The smell was quite strong and organic, which caused me to start having an asthma attack.  I took a number of short videos and some photos, although it is hard to get clear shots because the work is happening on the other side of large mounds that Enbridge has created.

I called the sheriff’s office and told them about the extremely loud noise and organic smell and the fact that Enbridge may be violating Michigan ordinance  750.352 Molesting and disturbing persons in pursuit of occupation, vocation or avocation given that I am trying to work at home today. I told them that the air pollution was causing an asthma attack. They said they could not do anything about it. I had to cancel a phone conference because of Enbridge’s activities, so it in indeed affecting my work.

I also called the PHMSA hotline and voiced my concerns that Enbridge is venting something from their pipeline activities that is causing not just a huge amount of noise but also a very bad smell in the air. They said they would inform the EPA.

Enbridge has been making a huge amount of noise all day and all night for weeks as they work to link up Line 6B Phase 1 and Phase 2 on our neighbor’s property. Despite the fact that Tom Hodge stated on WNDU nightly news that they are putting people up in hotels in areas where they are working all night, no such offer was made and when we asked an agent who called this weekend, he told us they could not do anything.  This is causing massive disturbance for our family. Our son keeps getting woken up at night which is a serious problem when he has school (or SAT tests!) the next morning.  We are also woken up repeatedly, and when we try to work from home we are often disturbed.  This morning, it is completely impossible to get any work done because of the loud noise and air pollution, and my phone conference had to be postponed. I am about to head out because of this.

I would like to go outside and hold up a sign along the road protesting Enbridge’s unethical treatment of homeowners but the air pollution and noise are too overwhelming. Enbridge has created enormous problems for our family for months. When will this stop? When will they begin to act in an honest, ethical manner?  When will they put enough money into engineering (noise reduction, pollution reduction, etc.) that they won’t cause such problems for local families?

Patricia Maurice, Cass County, MI

2013 PS Trust Conference Highlights

2013 PS Trust Conference Highlights

IMG_20131122_154816_398What a conference! Once again, the remarkable folks over at the Pipeline Safety Trust— Carl Weimer (at right, in the goofy hat), Rebecca Craven, and Samya Lutz put together a fantastic two days for industry representatives, regulators, and landowners and other citizen advocates. We’re home and still a little giddy over the experience, not to mention deeply gratified to have the chance to meet and learn from so many wonderful, interesting people. Like last year, we were reminded– despite all of our attempts to appear knowledgeable and authoritative– of just how little we know. We learned a lot and have much to continue to think about. We are so grateful to the Trust for their efforts arranging this kind of event and for giving us the opportunity to be a part of it.

In our heads, we are already composing a series of posts. But we can’t get to all of it at once. We need to digest and ruminate and cogitate. If you’d like to read another account of the conference, take a look at Emily Krajack’s post over at C.O.G.E.N.T. (and check out the awesome website while you’re at it; it’s indispensable for anyone who is at all concerned about fracking). As for us, for now we’ll just mention some highlights, some of which we’ll discuss in more detail in the coming days. Here they are, in no particular order and–in homage to the relentless, oppressive Power Point slides we endured for a full two days– in handy bullet point format:

  • Rebecca Craven. Period.
  • Carl Weimer speaking bluntly and critically in the most amiable, disarming way imaginable. How he pulls that off is either magic or genius. Probably both.
  • The cookbook– just you wait!!
  • Catching up with new friends from last year: Robert Whitesides, Randy Stansberry, Mike Holmstrom, Linda Phillips, Emily Krafjack, Ben Gotschall, Glenn Archambault
  • Making new friends: Julie Dermansky, Ann Jarrell, Jennie Baker (total badass), Chuck Lesniak, Lois Epstein
  • Talking homebrew and Tommy Tutone with Rick Kessler
  • Bill Byrd saying far less objectionable things than usual– and quoting Mark Twain!
  • The KXL activist from Texas interrupting the evening reception to raise a toast to a world without fossil fuels
  • San Francisco city attorney Austin Yang reminding PHMSA that delegation does not mean abdication
  • David Barnett of the United Association of Plumbers and Pipefitters calling for more industry transparency
  • Rich Kuprewicz on “wild ass guesses”
  • Whiskey with Josh Joswick telling of his fascinating youthful travels–on bicycle!
  • Learning about Liam’s fly-fishing class from Bruce Brabec
  • Learning about smoked salmon and Lummi Island from Samya Lutz
  • Learning about Shawn Lyon’s Hoosier roots
  • Craig Pierson using Shawn Lyon as a napkin at Cafe du Monde
  • The traditional post-conference taxi ride to the airport with Mike Holmstrom
  • The waiter at the airport restaurant repeatedly calling Beth Wallace “baby” (and somehow not getting himself slapped)
  • Fellow Line 6B landowner Dave Gallagher calling out Enbridge reps by name
  • Mayflower, Arkansas resident Ann Jarrell leaving not a dry eye in the building