Environmental groups are concerned about a project underway in Washington County at the Jackson Marsh Wildlife Area. A company has begun preparing the site, so workers can excavate and repair a degraded fuel pipeline. However, the firm has not yet obtained the required state permit.
Last July, part of West Shore Pipe Line Company’s gas pipeline ruptured in the Town of Jackson. More than 50,000 gallons spilled onto a farm field and seeped underground, contaminating more than 30 private wells. Nine months later, the town faces another potential threat from the same pipeline.
Patrick Hodgins is director of health, safety, security and environmental for West Shore Pipe Line Company. He says it used monitoring tools to check other sections of the line and identified problems in parts running through the Jackson Marsh Wildlife Area.
“That smart tool is designed to look for different things, whether it be defamation of metal, or should be corrosion or whatever the case might be, and it’s part of an ongoing maintenance program, we run them, required, every five years, sometimes even less,” Hodgins says.
Hodgins says the company must dig up the corroded sections and then determine whether to patch them or replace them. West Shore built a timber road through the marsh last month to prepare for the excavation, but did so without obtaining the required authorization from the Wisconsin DNR. Hodgins says the company applied for a wetland permit, but could not wait for the agency to act.
“We need to get in there and work on the pipeline right away and we made our applications, we’ve (been) working with the state to go in there and do the work,” Hodgins says.
The DNR has issued West Shore a notice of noncompliance, but won’t stop the work from continuing. Eric Nitschke is the agency’s southeast regional director. He says he doesn’t know if the state has ever cooperated this way with a company violating permit rules, but there’s a good reason to do so now.
“In the interest of protecting public health and safety, we’re moving forward maintaining an open dialogue with them as well as moving the permit process forward to ensure that we not only get the permit done but that we’re also getting the work done,” Nitschke says.
According to Nitschke, West Shore’s permit application is in the public notice period, and the earliest it could be issued is April 24. However, if parties request public hearings, the process could be delayed for weeks or months – and by then, the pipeline repairs may be finished. In the meantime, Nitschke says the DNR will place staff at the site to make sure West Shore adheres to state environmental laws.
“Some of the things that we look for are the timber matting, that they’re laying it down. There’s also plans and designs for how they’re going to go in and excavate the pipeline and do the necessary repairs to the pipeline ,” Nitschke says.
“I think in general, it’s just a really bad practice to issue permits after work has already started,” says Cheryl Nenn is with the environmental group, Milwaukee Riverkeeper. She says she’s noticed in recent years, that more companies are moving forward with construction projects before getting the required state permits. Nenn says that leaves no opportunity for the public or the DNR to provide input.
As for the Jackson Marsh, she says there are a number of unanswered questions – including whether groundwater near the fuel pipeline could already be contaminated, and if so, how to prevent it from reaching nearby waterways?
“A lot of the homeowners in the area are very concerned about what’s been going on with the greater pipeline issues that this company is having and are very concerned about the plans to fix the rest of the portion of the pipeline and also to minimize additional damage, not only to natural areas, but also to properties,” Nenn says.
Nenn also worries about the timing of the work. She says normally, this sort of maintenance in wetlands happens when the ground is frozen, to minimize environmental disruption. However, we’ve moved into the season when new plants are emerging and some migratory birds and mammals will soon begin breeding.
The DNR’s Eric Nitschke says the agency appreciates those concerns, which is why the state has not rushed the permit and plans to actively monitor the pipeline repairs.