Wednesday, Apr 25, 2018
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Jack Lessenberry


Oil pipeline rupture fuels Michigan woman's activism

ORTONVILLE, Mich. -- Katy Bodenmiller didn't plan to become an activist. She thinks of herself as "a freelance graphic designer who loves to garden."

Nor did she pay a great deal of attention two years ago when an oil pipeline belonging to a company called Enbridge burst near Marshall, Mich., sending an estimated 843,444 gallons of thick, tar-sands crude oil into the Kalamazoo River.

But a part of that pipeline runs through her backyard in rural Brandon Township at the northern border of Oakland County, closer to Flint than Detroit. This year, Ms. Bodenmiller found out that Enbridge Energy Partners, the U.S. affiliate of a Canadian multinational corporation, was going to replace the old pipe.

That pipe was installed around 1968, shortly before she was born. "That's when we entered this story," she said.

"When we learned that Enbridge refuses to pay fair replacement value for trees and plants, we got mad," she said. "The fact that we had to fight just to get a portion of the appraised replacement value was frustrating and demoralizing."

So Ms. Bodenmiller got energized. The more she learned, the angrier she got. So did her husband, Jeff Insko, who teaches American literature at nearby Oakland University.

She found that some of her neighbors had similar experiences. She and her husband started a blog ( "in an effort to help connect neighbor to neighbor and community to community," Ms. Bodenmiller said.

She was horrified when the National Transportation Safety Board released a massive report last month on the causes of the Kalamazoo River spill.

The government report made it clear that the rupture, and the fact that so much oil got into the water, represented a disaster caused by "pervasive organizational failures at Enbridge."

The company had been warned of major cracks in the line at least five years before the accident, yet did nothing. When the pipe ruptured, it triggered alarm bells. But the control center staff failed to recognize what they were, and for hours pumped hundreds of thousands of gallons of oil into the pipe.

The spill wasn't detected for 17 hours, apparently not until people complained about the smell. "The inadequacy of Enbridge's facility response plan to ensure adequate training" created a worst-case scenario, the NTSB concluded.

The cost of the cleanup so far is more than $767 million. Nevertheless, Enbridge received approval this spring from the Michigan Public Service Commission to replace the old pipe with a newer one that a company spokesman says will be safer, will be wider in some places, and will carry more oil.

Joe Martucci, a Michigan-based spokesman for Enbridge, says safety conditions have been addressed. But Ms. Bodenmiller believes there is reason to be uneasy.

She worries that the government's safety standards "are outdated and substandard." The NTSB report notes that "contributing to the accident was the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration's weak regulation … as well as [its] ineffective oversight of pipeline integrity management programs, control center procedures, and public awareness."

Ms. Bodenmiller contacted her elected officials, but received little response. Most ignored her. U.S. Sen. Debbie Stabenow's office sent her a form letter referring to the Keystone pipeline project. The senator's office has since apologized.

Ms. Bodenmiller moved to the local level, where she found a sympathetic ear in Kathy Thurman, Brandon Township's supervisor. This week, township trustees unanimously adopted a resolution that calls on Enbridge to take steps ranging from increasing the thickness of the pipeline walls to paying the township for using its roads.

They also asked for a guarantee that the old pipeline, which was left in the ground, will not be used again to carry "any kind of environmentally hazardous product."

Mr. Martucci, the Enbridge spokesman, said there are no plans to reuse the old pipeline. He said Enbridge would look at other items the township is seeking case by case. In the past, the company has indicated that the state gave it blanket approval to do what it needed to install the pipeline.

Enbridge has run into difficulty elsewhere in Michigan. In Livingston County, not far from Lansing, Debora and David Hense took the company to court after Enbridge started clearing trees on their land without an agreement on compensation.

The company had a legal easement, but needs more space to lay the larger pipe. It is confining its activities to the current easement until a court hearing next month.

For now, Ms. Bodenmiller feels good. Her township trustees say they intend to urge other affected communities to pass similar resolutions.

She notes "that there's also this little matter of Enbridge's own social responsibility policy. They claim to help support the quality of life in their host communities."

One of her goals is to remind Enbridge of that.

Jack Lessenberry, a member of the journalism faculty at Wayne State University in Detroit and The Blade's ombudsman, writes on issues and people in Michigan.

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