The Wisconsin DNR granted the Canadian firm Enbridge the final permit needed to carry three times as much oil south, in its newest pipeline, last Thursday.
The pipeline cuts diagonally through the state - from Superior down through Rock County into Illinois. The flow of oil will increase from 400,000 barrels per day to 1.2 million by 2016.
Some citizens don’t think their concerns were heard during the permitting process; that includes people living in Jefferson County.
Just south of his home in Fort Atkinson, Walt Christensen points from behind his steering wheel to four-foot tall markers protruding from a farm field. They bear the message, “Warning, Petroleum Pipeline.”
“Yeah there they are – you can see where the pipeline goes through.,” Christensen says.
Actually, there are four lines. In three of them, oil flows south, from Canada to Illinois. Enbridge built the first in the late 1960s, the second in the late 90s and workers started constructing two new lines in 2006.
One of the new lines is 42 inches in diameter and carries crude oil south. The other pipeline is 1,600 miles long and flows north carrying a substance used to thin heavy oil so it flows easier.
Christensen, who serves on the Jefferson County board, says some constituents are concerned.
“A resident sent me some information about this expansion and asked if there was something the county could do,” Christensen says.
The pipes pass through what Christensen calls his county’s hydrological treasures like Allen Creek. The stream and the wetlands that feed it get high marks for water quality and they harbor a rare minnow-like fish called the Least Darter.
Christensen points to a bump of earth erupting from its surroundings. He says it’s protected.
“All of this back here is state natural area now, and it’s because they have a calcareous fen: there are actually two of them," he say. "See that little mound right there? There’s about 5,000 acres of the stuff on the planet and they’ve got some of it here. It has a natural spring, and then certain plants thrive on that and no where else; they live and die there and that builds up this mound. So that’s really rare stuff, some threatened turtle species and so that’s right next to where the pipeline is."
Christensen spearheaded a Jefferson County Board resolution. It asked the DNR to slow the permitting process, to allow more public input. His strategy didn’t work, but Christensen says he and others in the county aren’t giving up.
“The next thing to get in an independently run public meeting to give residents a chance to learn about the pipeline and express their concerns," he says. "Enbridge offered to do that, but I don’t want them running the meeting."
Becky Haase handles Enbridge’s stakeholder relations. “I think it’s general human nature to fear things that we don’t understand and it’s a complicated system,” Haase says.
When Enbridge was constructing what it calls Line 61 – the one just approved to carry more oil, the company was cited for more than 100 environmental violations. It paid more than a million dollars to settle the claims.
Haase says major rain events were to blame. “You might remember the flooding of 2008 when Wisconsin Dells basically washed away so imagine trying to maintain a silt fence when an entire reservoir washes away,” she says.
Since it started carrying oil, Line 61 reports no problems.
Not so, with the adjacent pipes. Enbridge reports four ruptures, most recently in July 2012, when 1,200 barrels of oil spilled onto farmland in Adams County.
That volume pales in comparison to 800,000 barrels that streamed into the Kalamazoo River, after a 2010 rupture in Michigan.The company is still cleaning that watershed.
“That was the worst day in Enbridge’s 65-year history," Haasse says. It was the worst leak in our history and it has definitely been a turning point for the company."
She says Enbridge has completely retooled its monitoring and repair protocol. “We want to protect the land , the communities, the people who live and work near our pipelines,” Haase says.
Gary Poeppel was a boy when the company cut its first pipe across his family’s fields outside Fort Atkinson.
“I was a little kid in 1968; we actually crawled through the pipe when the construction workers weren’t here,” Poeppel says.
His father requested, and the company agreed to bury the pipe extra deep – six feet down. The family then installed a system of tiles and ditches, so water wouldn’t pond after a heavy rain and kill the crops.
Poeppel says pipeline and farming coexisted just fine for decades, until workers laid the second line. It was not installed as deep as the first.
“We could tell that the field wasn’t the same, it was getting wetter and harder to farm it,” he says.
Poeppel says when news came that the company would lay two more lines - 61 and the return pipe, he thought workers would take care of the problems.
“They put in their pipe and left; the field flooded horribly,” Poeppel says.
That was spring 2008 – historically heavy rain exacerbated flooding.
”They had mounds of dirt, that all eroded away; it eroded into the ditches, it eroded into Allen Creek," Poeppel says. "They couldn’t get back in there. Then they did come back in October and tried to do a repair and they weren’t very successful. I kept pressing them and eventually they said ‘get a lawyer’ that they were done."
Peoppel went to circuit court, and the judge ordered the company to dry out the land.
“You can see all the debris, the clay; here’s wood that they never picked up; and there’s large chunks, there's x4s,” Poeppel says. Water sloshes underfoot.
Yet Poepel does not plan to join fellow Jefferson County residents in the current flurry of activity over the pipeline. “I’ve kind of lost my drive over that stuff – it’s drained my retirement account; it’s changed my life,” Poeppel says.
Jefferson County officials have set up a public information with Enbridge Inc. It is slated for June 24th.