25 may 2017

Firm behind Dakota Access pipeline faces intense scrutiny for series of leaks

Documents suggest that a major spill from the Rover pipeline in Ohio described as 2m gallons of ‘drilling fluids’ might now be more than twice as large

Sam Levin in San Francisco, The Guardian, Thursday 25 May 2017

The oil company behind the Dakota Access pipeline is facing intense scrutiny from regulators and activists for a series of recent leaks across the country, including a major spill now believed to be significantly bigger than initially reported.

Documents obtained by the Guardian suggest that a spill from the Rover pipeline that Ohio regulators originally described as 2m gallons might now be more than twice as large. The revelation was included in a legal challenge activists filed on Wednesday to block the natural gas pipeline run by Energy Transfer Partners (ETP), the corporation that operates the controversial Dakota Access pipeline and is now facing numerous government fines and violations.

The complaint against the Rover pipeline – which has been cited for more than a dozen environmental incidents, including a spill into a wetland that Ohio regulators described as a “tragedy” – comes on the heels of reports that Dakota Access had three recent leaks before it was even fully operational.

The growing number of problems with the two pipelines raises serious questions about the safety record of ETP and the effectiveness of the regulatory processes designed to protect the environment, according to activists fighting the projects.

“Put together how the company has conducted itself, the environmental damage and the rejection of the authority of the state, we fear the impact to our water resources,” said Clifford Rowley, a Michigan resident who is part of a group challenging the Rover pipeline.

ETP made international headlines last year when indigenous activists from across the globe fought against the Dakota Access pipeline, which the Standing Rock Sioux tribe said threatened its sacred sites and water supply in North Dakota. Shortly after his inauguration, Donald Trump, who has close financial ties to ETP, ordered the expedited completion of the pipeline. While preparing for the formal launch over the last two months, small leaks were reported in South Dakota and North Dakota, according to government records.

The $4.2bn Rover pipeline – proposed to transport 3.25bn cubic feet per day of natural gas in Ohio, West Virginia, Michigan and Canada – received federal approvals for construction in February.

In April, there was a reported release of roughly 2m gallons of “drilling fluids” within a 500,000 square foot wetland area, according to violation records from the Ohio Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Another report cited the release of 50,000 gallons into a different wetland. There have been a total of 18 incidents across 11 counties, according to the complaint.

The state EPA director Craig Butler recently described the problem to the Washington Post as a “pattern” of spills, saying the company’s response was “dismissive” and “exceptionally disappointing”.

The rebuke from Butler is significant given that he is an appointee of Republican governor John Kasich, a former presidential candidate who supports increased drilling and a rollback of Obama-era restrictions.

Emails from an ETP official to Ohio regulators, obtained from a public records request, show that the 2m gallon figure was likely a low initial estimate. The company official summarized the total “gallons lost” at roughly 5m.

State EPA spokesman James Lee told the Guardian that the latest figures suggest the spill was “more than 2m”, adding in a statement: “It is a tragedy in that the affected wetland will likely not recover to its previous condition for decades. Had Rover more closely monitored their drilling equipment, and been better prepared for an immediate emergency response, this incident would likely not have occurred on the scale that we’re dealing with now.”

“This is a rather astonishing situation,” said Terry Lodge, an attorney representing citizens’ groups in Ohio and Michigan, which filed the complaint urging the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (Ferc) to revoke the construction permit and reopen an environmental analysis. “Our governor is a rightwing Republican who is extremely pro-fracking and extremely pro-pipeline.”

Despite the Trump administration’s support of pipelines and affiliations with ETP – energy secretary Rick Perry previously sat on the company’s board – Ferc recently ordered the Rover pipeline to partially halt drilling due to concerns about the spill.

“Staff has serious concerns regarding the magnitude of the incident,” the federal agency wrote.

In addition to leaks, the Ohio EPA cited Rover for an “open burning violation”, Lee said, explaining that the company was burning trees too close to a home, violating its permit.

In the complaint, residents have also raised concerns about a “last-minute, unannounced route change” that puts the project near private homes, a children’s camp and a state recreation area by Silver Lake in Michigan. Some people would be “entrapped by the Rover pipeline in the event of a catastrophic pipeline leakage, explosion and fire”, the complaint said.
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“The fear right now is combined with disbelief and anger,” said Wendy Zielen, a local resident. “I feel profoundly, profoundly taken advantage of.”

As more mistakes pile up, she added, it’s difficult to have confidence in ETP and the process: “We trusted what they told us – that we would be safe, we would be informed. I have zero faith.”

Laura Mebert, an anthropologist at Kettering University in Michigan, who has been opposing Rover, said it should not have taken a records request for the public to learn about the full size of the spill, adding: “The rules in place are still allowing companies too much free reign to trample over the rights and interest of the public.”

ETP spokeswoman Alexis Daniel said the Rover pipeline has been working with the government on permitting for more than three years and has “followed all of the proper procedures” and “been appropriately vetted”. ETP is also following “remediation” plans for the spills, she said, adding, “We have increased the manpower and the equipment along the route to facilitate a thorough clean-up effort.”

Daniel further wrote: “The fact remains that pipelines are the safest and most environmentally friendly way to transport the energy that American’s use every day.”

Some experts said the Dakota Access leaks appeared to be relatively small and not out of the ordinary given the size of the project.

But Standing Rock tribal chairman Dave Archambault II said the spills were a sign of bigger problems to come: “The fact that the Dakota Access pipeline has already suffered from multiple leaks prior to even being fully operational perfectly highlights what the tribe has said all along: pipelines are not safe. Allegedly no water has been contaminated yet, but at this rate of failure it is only a matter of time.”

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