Fresh off a visit to Washington, D.C. and a visit to PHMSA, we’ve got an op-ed this week over at Vice News in which we wonder why pipelines just keep failing:
It has been five years since the Marshall disaster in Michigan — and also five years since the terrible San Bruno, California pipeline explosion that killed eight people — but federal regulators have done almost nothing to improve the safety of the nation’s existing pipelines. Partly in response to these incidents and others like them, in 2011 Congress passed the Pipeline Safety, Regulatory Certainty, and Job Creation Act. Yet in the intervening time, the agency charged with implementing that bill’s provisions, the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Administration (PHMSA), has failed to finalize and institute any new major regulations.
You can read the full piece here.
And while you’re there, be sure to take the time to watch the excellent video report, “Pipeline Nation,” featuring our friends Carl Weimer and Alexis Bonogofsky telling the truth.
If you’ve been paying attention to Enbridge in the news, you might have heard about the protests up in Canada a couple weeks ago, where some concerned activists put up a blockade halting work on Enbridge’s Line 9 reversal project. In response to that action, Enbridge generated a shockingly disingenuous blog post under the headline– we’re not making this up– “Pipelines and protests: A meaningful discussion starts with the facts.” In it, Enbridge presents six “facts” about Line 9, as if to present themselves as the truth-tellers in contrast to those dishonest, un-factual protestors.
We’re not going to spend time here pointing out just how very arguable most of their six so-called “facts” really are. (Like the claim that “Line 9 has an excellent safety record,” which surely depends upon how one defines “excellent.”) Instead, we just need to point out how preposterous– preposterous to the point of being offensive– it is for Enbridge to try to take the high road and pretend to be genuinely devoted to “facts” and the truth.
Let’s just quickly review, for instance, some of Enbridge’s greatest hits of the last 12 months. Mind you, we’re not talking here about garden-variety public relations spin or the routine misinformation spread by land agents. We’re talking about clear, demonstrable falsehoods served up by prominent Enbridge employees, including some of their most senior executives. Here are just five examples of such falsehoods from the past year, demonstrating vividly how Enbridge engages in “meaningful discussion” starting with “facts”:
- In Indiana, Enbridge spokesperson Jennifer Smith told the public that federal regulations require them to remove all trees from the pipeline right of way.
- In Canada, Enbridge spokesman Graham White fabricated a disparaging story, out of whole cloth, about a single concerned citizen.
- In Minnesota, Senior Land Manager John McKay said that Enbridge pipeline projects begin with landowners deciding to do business with Enbridge.
- Here in Michigan, Vice President Rich Adams looked the United States EPA straight in they eye and told them an untrue story about obtaining a dredge pad permit.
- And most recently in Michigan, Vice President Brad Shamla pretended in front of the whole world that the pipeline rupture in Marshall happened a day later than it actually did.
Unfortunately, such brazen, undisguised untruths generally go unnoticed or are met with little more than a shrug of the shoulders. It may be that the public simply expects so little in the way of honesty from companies like Enbridge that we’ve all but given up on being outraged by instances of dishonesty. For example, no one in the press (or anywhere else), as far as we know, has taken any interest at all in Enbridge’s revisionist history about the date of the Marshall spill. We find this baffling and deeply disturbing. Wouldn’t you think that some dogged reporter somewhere would just want to call Brad Shamla on the phone and ask the simple question: “How can you say, on the one hand, that you don’t want to erase Marshall from your memory while, on the other hand, you deliberately pretend the day the rupture occurred was the day after it occurred?”
Worse than apathy or cynicism, however, is the fact that there are still a lot of people– local officials, journalists, newspaper editorial boards, ordinary landowners– who actually do believe things that Enbridge tells them. That’s bad and has severe consequences. It’s bad because it can leave landowners unprotected (because, say, they didn’t think they needed to hire an attorney). Bad because newspapers might type up whatever Enbridge says (and thereby misinform the public). Bad because elected officials and regulatory agencies will accept Enbridge’s word on important matters (and leave the public interest unprotected).
But the evidence (above and all throughout our archives) shows that you can’t believe the things Enbridge says, that you can’t take them at their word. And that’s why we think it is very important–imperative– to demonstrate as clearly and factually as possible when and how and why Enbridge can NOT be trusted. It’s why we continue to be outraged by false and misleading statements. Because those statements are not inconsequential; they have very real effects out in the world, your world. Our (perhaps futile) hope is that if we keep pointing them out, maybe eventually people– landowners, journalists, politicians, regulators– will be a little less trusting in the future.
On more than one occasion over the past couple of years, Enbridge officials have told us that the Line 6B situation in Michigan is anomalous– presumably meaning that the contention, the poor communication, the acrimony, and the miscues (on their part) are out of the ordinary. Elsewhere and in the past, they would have us believe, Enbridge does not and has not conducted itself the way it has conducted itself here.
Unfortunately, too much evidence suggests otherwise. The latest glaring example of this has to do with Line 9 in Canada. Line 9, you will recall, runs across Ontario to Sarnia (where Line 6B terminates). Enbridge is currently seeking to reverse the flow of that pipeline, raising serious concerns on the part of residents all along that route.
Just this week, a Canadian television program, CTV’s W5, ran a major story on the project, uncovering some troubling facts about the integrity of Line 9, which is 38 years old. (The video is currently unavailable in the U.S., but we’ll link to it once it is viewable); they even came to Michigan to speak with residents here, like our friend David Gallagher. Among other things, the report discovered far more incidents on the line, including at Enbridge facilities, than previously reported publicly.
Most striking to us about the report– and in a follow-up story at the Toronto Star— is the reaction to this news by local officials. Their refrain is one that we and many others all across Michigan have been singing for a very long time: Enbridge does not, despite all of their claims to the contrary, communicate openly, honestly, and straightforwardly. For instance:
Landowners like Walker living along Enbridge’s Line 9 pipeline say that when problems arise on the pipelines running through their land they struggle with getting answers and help from the company.
“I didn’t believe that a pipeline or anybody would kind of leave you holding the bag the way that they’ve left me holding the bag on this one,” says Walker.
W5 called the municipalities where these spills occurred and the majority of them were not notified. The Mayor of Sarnia, Mike Bradley, where thousands of litres of product released at an Enbridge terminal, said he wasn’t informed of the nine incidents there since 2006 and believed that regardless of the fact that they were on Enbridge property, he thought the city should be informed.
“If you want to have a good relationship with your community, and you want to get rid of the distrust that is out there for the pipeline industry you disclose everything,” said Bradley.
And in the Toronto Star:
“It’s quite alarming,” said Brian McHattie, a city councillor in Hamilton, where seven leaks over the years have released nearly 3,000 litres of crude oil at company facilities northwest of the city. “This is new information for me.”
McHattie said the information raises concern about what is shared with municipalities. Hamilton staff met regularly with Enbridge officials since the company submitted its application, but none, to McHattie’s knowledge, were ever informed of the spills.
“They just haven’t been very forthcoming with us,” said McHattie. “It just makes you less confident in their integrity as a company and their willingness to share information and be above-board.”
Cramahe Mayor Marc Coombs said he first learned of five spills that together leached 1,824 litres of oil when he was contacted by a W5 reporter.
“We were not notified of any of them,” said Coombs. “It does (raise concerns), from the point of view of transparency.”
Sarnia Mayor Mike Bradley said the city isn’t usually notified when spills are contained within facilities and don’t require municipal staff to be involved in containment or cleanup. He said the city hadn’t heard about the nine spills linked with Line 9 facilities in the past decade — but it should.
“It’s just a good practice to notify, and then we can make our own judgment whether we need to do anything further,” said Bradley. “Just tell us. That’s all we want — to know.”
In both reports, Enbridge spokesperson Graham White– he’s the guy who not long ago out-Springered Larry Springer by fabricating a story about one citizen seeking more information about Line 9–is on hand with all of the standard excuses and platitudes. In fact, it appears that he and his team of spin doctors even tried a preemptive strike, sending out a letter to local officials criticizing the report before it had even aired.
Of course, to those of us in Michigan, there’s nothing new about any of this. Enbridge’s failure to communicate honestly with landowners, municipalities, and the public and its desperate attempt to try and solve all of its problems via its vast (and inept) public relations apparatus has been the predominant theme of this blog for a very long time; just see, for example, this and this and this and this. Perhaps Canadians will have more success convincing elected officials and regulators to step up and protect the public than we have in Michigan.
Speaking of the remarkable similarities between the experiences of people along Line 9 and along Line 6B, the latest entry by our Canadian friend Emily Ferguson over at the Line 9 Communities blog is well worth your time. It tells the story of a landowner frustrated by an Enbridge integrity dig. His experience, unfortunately, mirrors the kinds of maddening experiences we have documented here so extensively. Check it out.
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.
Early last week, we kicked off our latest series— on our experience with IJNR Kalamazoo River Institute— by ruminating on the strange current state of Talmadge Creek and the Kalamazoo River. Yes, both are lovely and seemingly very clean. Objectively speaking, it’s hard to say that Enbridge did not clean them up well (you can do a lot with a billion dollars)– although there’s much more to be done (so says the EPA). Of course, in our view, the cleanup effort is not really cause for any great celebration or any reason to go heaping praise on Enbridge. After all, if you break something that doesn’t belong to you, you should be obligated to fix it– and not congratulated for doing so.
But as we said in that previous post, what was most striking to us about the creek and the river was, first, the way in which the history of the spill appears to have been erased. The truth about what happened there in 2010 is evident only through a series of barely perceptible signs, all but unreadable to the average visitor. This, in our view, is a travesty. If there’s a sign commemorating the site where the Jeffery family once lived, there also ought to be a sign explaining why they don’t live there anymore. There ought to be signs and plaques up and down the river telling future generations of river-goers exactly what happened to the ecosystem and to the lives of all those decent, ordinary people– the Deb Millers and Susan Connollys. The future citizens of Michigan ought to know about the mess. They ought to know the truth– that people’s lives were disrupted, in some cases ruined, that their health was affected, that flora and fauna were destroyed– not just the clean up, and the greenwashing.
The other thing that struck us about the current state of the river and the creek– and it’s related to the first– is their “hyperreal” quality. The pre-2010 river and creek are gone and a new river and a new creek have taken their place, rivers and creeks re-made and, to a large extent, operated by Enbridge. Public, natural resource have become (to a degree) semi-private, artificial creations. And we just find that a little, um, creepy.
So why are we rehashing this today, having just written about it a few days ago? Well, because no sooner had we posted about this than we stumbled upon a perfect illustration of our point. Let us introduce you to David Jephson:
Jephson is the deputy fire chief in Terrace, British Columbia up in Canada– which is one of the (many) places where Enbridge has run into a bit of opposition with their massive Northern Gateway project (sort of Canada’s Keystone XL). Earlier this month, Enbridge invited a number of B.C. officials to a tour of Marshall and the Kalamazoo River so that the officials could observe first-hand just how marvelous and squeaky-clean it is now. This, evidently, is Enbridge’s way of persuading Canadian officials of the company’s all-around wonderfulness and putting to rest any apprehensions the officials might have about a Marshall-like spill in northern B.C.
Well, deputy chief Jephson was mighty impressed, as he told the CBC in a radio interview (he has also spoken to a local newspaper). For one thing, Jephson seems to think it’s meaningful– evidence that it was no big deal?– that some random people the delegation met in Detroit didn’t know very much about the spill. But the most extraordinary thing Jephson says is “you wouldn’t know there was a spill there unless you were told”– as if the erasure of the history of that spill and the devastation it caused were a good thing, as if the view and experience, and history of the river and the spill they were getting from Enbridge were accurate, transparent, and honest– rather than carefully orchestrated. The level of gullibility on display by Jephson is truly extraordinary. In fact, Enbridge is so pleased with the things Jephson has been saying since the tour that they have posted a transcript of the radio interview on their website and appear to have adopted him as their new mascot– they’ve replaced poor Michael Milan!
But of course, few people really know what the tour Enbridge took Jephson on was really like, even though Jephson says it was a “fact finding trip”– and nobody other than Jephson appears to be talking We have no idea who the officials on the tour met and spoke with– and we’ve been trying to find out. As is typically the case with Enbridge, the tour, the information supplied by the tour, and information about the tour, all seem to have been very carefully controlled, even a little secretive. But you can be sure that the people on the tour certainly didn’t speak with any Enbridge critics. Nor do they appear to have met or spoken with any of the important scientists or organizations working on restoration (this according to our friend Beth Wallace, who also tried to find out). But you can bet that they talked to plenty of Enbridge’s deep pool of public relations message massagers.
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.