Commentary: The Pipeline Controversy

Aug 20, 2012

There’s going to be a meeting tonight in the normally sleepy community of Brandon Township, in rural northern Oakland County not that far from Flint. Except that this session is likely to be different.

You can expect it to be crowded, and explosive.

Two years ago, a pipeline belonging to an Alberta-based company called Enbridge ruptured near the picturesque town of Marshall, sending more than eight hundred thousand gallons of crude, thick, tar sands oil into a creek leading to the Kalamazoo River. It was the largest inland oil spill in the history of the Midwest.

The cleanup has cost eight hundred million dollars, and is still not completely finished. The National Transportation Safety Board now says Enbridge knew of a defect in the pipeline five years before the accident. None of this has endeared Enbridge to Michigan residents. Well, now the company wants to construct a new pipeline across the state next to the existing one, which has been repaired.

The company says the new pipeline will be more safe and have thicker walls. But it will also have a greater capacity and carry more oil. All this has Brandon Township residents worried.

Tonight, they are going to take up a resolution that asks the company to increase the thickness of pipeline walls. Brandon may additionally ask the company to have more inspection surveys and compensate the township for use of its roads.

It isn’t clear what will happen at this meeting -- nor is it clear how the multinational giant corporation will react if township officials in fact vote to require these things. In the past, Enbridge has claimed that local consent isn’t needed. Earlier this month, a woman in Livingston County near Lansing told the media that even though she hadn’t come to an agreement with Enbridge, work crews showed up at her property and started cutting trees down for the pipeline.

The company claims they had a right to do that, under the law of eminent domain. That is being challenged, however. Gary Field, a lawyer near Lansing told the Los Angeles Times that he was planning on bringing a case against Enbridge, and said their claim of eminent domain is ridiculous, since Enbridge is neither a public utility or a branch of  government , merely a private firm, and a foreign one at that. Katy Bodenmiller, who lives in nearby Groveland Township, contacted me last week to say how frustrated she is with our elected officials. When she contacted Senator Debbie Stabenow, she got a form letter about the unrelated Keystone pipeline project.

She’s heard nothing from her congressman, Mike Rogers, or Michigan’s other senator, Carl Levin, and feels helpless.

“It make us wonder,” she said, if the politicians are “too busy locking horns over the election to care much about a pipeline construction project that makes hollow promises.” She added, “I’d like to hear from the people at the Michigan Public Services Commission who rubber-stamped this project,” and from former Governor Jim Blanchard, who has a seat on the Enbridge board.

For now, all she has heard is a deafening silence. My guess, however, is that this may change. Whatever happens tonight, it seems unlikely that this issue is going away.