As we mentioned this past week, we finally received a response from Enbridge regarding their claim that certain features of the new pipe exceed federal regulations. We are very grateful to Enbridge’s Terri Larson for getting us a reasonably thorough answer. Terri strikes us as genuine and reliable.
But federal regulations are a complicated affair, which makes scrutinizing Enbridge’s claim fairly tricky. We’re working on it. In the meantime, we thought we’d link to this excellent and very important article at ProPublica by way of providing some context for the discussion that’s to come. Plus, you get to read the remarks of one of our heroes: Carl Weimer, the Executive Director of the Pipeline Safety Trust. You don’t want to miss Carl saying this:
Given the limitations of government money and personnel, it is often the industry that inspects its own pipelines. Although federal and state inspectors review paperwork and conduct audits, most on-site pipeline inspections are done by inspectors on the company’s dime.
The industry’s relationship with PHMSA may go further than inspections, critics say. The agency has adopted, at least in part, dozens of safety standards written by the oil and natural gas industry.
“This isn’t like the fox guarding the hen house,” said Weimer. “It’s like the fox designing the hen house.”
We’re back from a nice weekend break from Enbridge-related matters. Hopefully, you also enjoyed some of the nice autumn weather. We’ve got more reports on the PS Trust conference coming— most notably, an account of the terrific environmental panel with Beth Wallace, Anthony Swift, and Gabe Scott. Stay tuned for that. We also have another Enbridge newspaper ad to respond to as well.
In the meantime, we’re perusing the colorful, glossy newsletter from Enbridge that we received in the mail recently. Presumably, many of you received it also. As far as Enbridge communications go, it’s not half-bad (which isn’t saying much), although we can’t help but wonder where this devotion to communicating with the public was back when Phase 1 of the project kicked off. We didn’t receive any glossy newsletters back in February (or March, April, May, June, July, or August) when we were first contacted by a ROW agent. We also weren’t notified of any open houses in our area of the sort Thomas Hodge says Enbridge held last summer:
Enbridge conducted four open houses on this project [Phase 2] in June 2012. Thank you to the nearly 300 people who attended these open houses. Attendees were able to meet with project staff to ask questions, view detailed project maps and provide input.
All of that sounds great. It’s a shame, however, that all four of those open houses were held in a very small area near Kalamazoo and in Indiana. Over here on the east side (and all along the Phase 1 route), no such open houses were held. We haven’t a clue as to why not.
The open house story is not the only part of the newsletter that paints a misleading picture of Enbridge’s public awareness campaign. On the back page of the brochure, there is this very curious paragraph under the heading “Local Residents Offer Feedback on Enbridge Communications”:
This past September, Enbridge conducted focus groups in several communities in Michigan and Indiana. Faocus groups consist of a guided discussion led by a moderator and designed to be casual and interactive. In total, we met with more than 120 people who live and/or work near our pipelines and who shared their thoughts and feedback about us and our operations. We hald these meetings for the primary purposes of developing better communications and building stronger relationships with the communities in which we operate. The results from the focus groups will help guide our future communications and outreach activity as the projects move through the planning, regulatory and construction phases.
This is very curious indeed. For one thing, 120 people strikes us an extremely small sample given the scope of the project. For another, we don’t recall an invitation to participate in any “focus group”– though we have a vague recollection of a mysterious call inviting us to some kind of energy-related meeting. At the time, we though it was a marketing scam, since the caller could not give us any specific details. Was this the Enbridge focus group? If so, it’s a very poor way to gather honest input from affected landowners– though not surprising, coming from Enbridge. Instead of soliciting landowner feedback directly, this would suggest that they just hired some market research firm. But if they really wanted to hear about the experiences of affected stakeholders wouldn’t it have been better (and not very difficult) just to call all of us? Invite us all to fill out some kind of survey? Of course, that might elicit real feedback, not the carefully-controlled, p.r. driven, market research-style input that Enbridge would prefer to generate. As we’ve noted time and again, when it comes to serious, honest, pull-no-punches comments from landowners, Enbridge just doesn’t want to hear it.
One last item in the newsletter worth commenting upon: on a page describing “High Safety Standards for All Enbridge Projects,” we are provided these two intriguing bullet points (among others):
- The new pipeline segments will contain more remotely-operated isolation valves than what is required by federal regulations.
- The new pipeline segments will be internally inspected more frequently than U.S. regulatory requirements, using state of the art in-line inspection technology.
Our regular readers might recall that we have asked questions seeking clarification about this matter of exceeding federal regulatory requirements on numerous occasions. We asked about it directly at the Brandon Township workshop, for instance. More recently, we wrote to Enbridge’s Terri Larson asking her which specific features of the design exceed which regulatory requirements. Enbridge reps couldn’t answer that question at the workshop– and more than two months later they still haven’t answered it. As for Terri Larson, it’s been more than a week now and she still hasn’t gotten us an answer. Now, to be clear: we do not think this is Terri’s fault; we believe her when she tells us she is looking into it. The problem appears to be that the information just isn’t very easy to obtain. But if the claim is true, why should it be so hard to answer such a simple question?
As we await more information from Terri on this, we are also looking into the specific claims cited above (about isolation valves and inspections)– but that involves doing a bit of research into federal regulations– ugh! But once we’ve got some answers, we will pursue this matter in more detail.
Now that we’ve returned from the Pipeline Safety Trust conference– we’ve already launched our new series of reports on it!– we hope to try and catch up on some overdue posts. First up is the most recent ad Enbridge ran in the Detroit Free Press (and elsewhere, we believe). You might recall that we found it rather difficult to procure a copy of this ad (though we finally decided to reject the notion that there was a conspiracy afoot to prevent us from seeing it). We still have not gotten our hands on it. Fortunately, our wonderful reader Linda supplied us with a description and some copy. [SEE UPDATE BELOW.]
But first, a small item of note. In our first report on the PS Trust conference, we mentioned that there was one exception to the total Enbridge snub of us at the conference. We still plan to post a full version of that story in another conference report. But we will say here that the single Enbridge representative who did speak to us was Director of US Corporate and Business Communications Terri Larson. We had some minor apprehensions about the substance of what Terri said to us (and we said as much to her), but based on our brief interaction, we liked her. She struck us as sincere and we very much appreciated her willingness to engage us; she invited us to do the same. And we will.
We mention that here because it turns out that Terri is one of the people responsible for the series of Enbridge ads we’ve been writing about. (And given how critical we’ve been of them, we think that makes it all the more commendable that Terri approached us.)
At any rate, here is the description of the ad we received from Linda:
Huge picture of beautiful landscape with pipe snaking through it. Headlines: Line 6B: ENGINEERED RELIABILITY……Enbridge is replacing segments of its Line 6B pipeline that runs through Michigan and Indiana to ensure the continued secure supply of energy resources through this key transportation system. Throughout this process, we want you, our neighbors, to know that careful planning is going into engineering and constructing this system.
These pipeline segments will meet or exceed regulatory requirements with design features including:
-Increased wall thickness from the current .250 inch to a minimum of .375 and up to .625 inch under wetlands and water crossings.
-35 remotely controlled electric valves, in addition to valves at pump station sites.
-Higher strength steel and state of the art fusion bonded epoxy coating to help inhibit external corrosion.
Based on this description, we’d have to say that this is the least objectionable of the ads that have run so far. At the same time, you’d surely be disappointed if we didn’t find something to which we object. So, briefly, here goes:
We’ll let the “our neighbors” bit go just this once; that’s well-covered ground at this point. Instead, we’ll focus on some other things we’ve said (or asked) before. That is, all this stuff sounds great, especially since most of us know very little about these technical matters. But a closer look might give one a bit of pause. For example, telling us the number of remotely controlled electric valves (if one even knows what they are) is close to meaningless unless one first knows, say, what a standard number of valves is for a particular length of pipe. (This is the sort of thing that a bunch of the tech-heads at the PS Trust conference, like our friends Robert Whitesides and Michael Holmstrom likely know.)
We could say similar things about the other items. After all, the list really raises more questions than it answers. For instance, why the range– a rather wide range– of wall thicknesses at wetlands and water crossings? What thicknesses will be used at which crossings? Why and how is that determined? How would anyone who wanted that information find it out?
The same might go for the statement about how “these pipeline segments will meet or exceed regulatory requirements.” We’re not told which of the listed design features exceed regulatory requirements (and it’s not even 100% clear that the regulatory requirements we’re talking about here are U.S. requirements). In fact, this very question– about which federal requirements the design of this pipeline exceeds– is one that we stood up and asked at the now-infamous Brandon Township “workshop.” Perhaps you’ve heard that it’s now been more than two months since that workshop and Enbridge has STILL not answered that question– or any others.
So here is what we’re going to do. We’re just going to write to Terri Larson and ask her this one simple question: specifically, which design features of the new pipe exceed which regulations? We will report back what we learn.
Just one final point, one that we have also made before: we have little doubt all of these technological improvements are surely a very good thing (how could they not be compared to a 40 year old pipe?!). But it bears remembering that at Marshall, technology was a relatively small part of the problem. Technological failures didn’t make for disaster in Marshall; human failures did.
[UPDATE: Thanks to our friend Nate Pavlovic who sent us a photo of the ad last night. We especially like its pastoralism, which almost makes it seem as if the pipeline is a natural feature of the landscape itself, like the trees and the grass. But it puts us in mind of the great Wallace Stevens poem, “Anecdote of the Jar”– just substitute “pipe” for “jar” and “Michigan” for “Tennessee”:
I placed a jar in Tennessee,
And round it was, upon a hill.
It made the slovenly wilderness
Surround that hill.
The wilderness rose up to it,
And sprawled around, no longer wild.
The jar was round upon the ground
And tall and of a port in air.
It took dominion every where.
The jar was gray and bare.
It did not give of bird or bush,
Like nothing else in Tennessee.]
Last week, we noted a curious situation with regard to some seemingly conflicting remarks from Lake County, Indiana officials and Enbridge spokespersons about pipeline wall thicknesses in Lake County. The questions that remain ambiguous are: (1) whether Enbridge is increasing wall thicknesses as a result of discussions with local officials (something they rejected as absurd up here in Michigan) and (2) what, precisely, that thickness will be.
The comments of Enbridge spokesperson Jennifer Smith in a new article in the Times of Northwest Indiana only further deepen the mystery: (more…)
This one is a bit of a head scratcher and we’d like to get to the bottom of it:
The Gary, Indiana Post-Tribune reported this week that, apparently, Enbridge
has agreed to increase the thickness of the pipe throughout [Lake County, Indiana] instead of just at the drains it must run under, according to Surveyor George Van Til. “We are very pleased about that,” Van Til said. (more…)
A staffer from Michigan state Senator David Robertson’s office once tried to dismiss my concerns about Enbridge by insisting that the Kalamazoo River was cleaner now than it was before the spill. We’ve heard the same thing from others. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, however, thinks that Enbridge still has cleanup work to do: this just in.