While we can see the opening scenes of climate change in Dane County with our earlier springs and late autumns, for most of us, the battles brewing to reduce the existential risks from global warming have been far away.

No longer.

With all the recent attention on the Keystone XL pipeline in Congress, few are aware that there is another pipeline carrying tar sands oil from the boreal forests of Alberta to U.S. refineries that goes right through Dane County, just east of Marshall.

The Dane County Zoning and Land Regulation Committee will meet Dec. 9 to continue its review of a conditional use permit from Canadian pipeline company Enbridge Inc. The permit is for increased capacity of its pumping station in the town of Medina, near Marshall. The Zoning Committee is considering whether to require Enbridge to obtain insurance, or a performance bond, to protect Dane County if a pipeline ruptures at the pumping station. Enbridge has already agreed to prepare a containment pond to accommodate a spill of 2.1 million gallons, equivalent to one hour of flow.

What is flowing in the Enbridge pipeline, known as Line 61? Tar sands, the same product carried by the Keystone pipeline. But there are stark differences between the two pipelines: It seems almost everyone is familiar with Keystone, although it is not running through Wisconsin. Enbridge is right in our own backyard, but do you know anyone who has heard of it? Probably not, because Enbridge maintains a remarkably low public profile. Another difference is that the Enbridge pipeline is expected to transport 1.2 million barrels of tar sands daily, more than any other U.S. pipeline, dwarfing the Keystone’s 830,000 barrels a day.

Some local residents are concerned that a pipeline rupture would be devastating. Dane County’s beautiful rivers, wetlands and meadows are home to multitudes of fish, plants, birds and other animals that would be at risk, in addition to damage to cherished farmland and homes as well as businesses.

Juxtaposed against the risk from a tar sands spill is that Dane County benefits little. Tar sands originate in Canada, pass through our state and are refined elsewhere or shipped to global markets.

Enbridge’s abysmal safety record includes over 800 spills, some in Wisconsin. The most disastrous, to date, was the 843,444 gallons of tar sands oil that devastated the Kalamazoo River in 2010, worsened by the fact that tar sands sink to the bottom of waterways. This was the largest inland spill in U.S. history, with cleanup still unfinished, despite costing Enbridge $1.21 billion. Relevant to concerns here in Dane County, Enbridge refused to provide funds for assessing injuries to natural resources requested by Michigan authorities and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. This suggests that EPA-supervised tar sands cleanup would be inadequate to meet Dane County’s determination of what is necessary to restore its lands and waters to their original state. Enbridge carries its own insurance, mostly related to spill cleanup. On the other hand, if Dane County requires Enbridge to pay for Environmental Impairment Liability insurance, this could cover natural resource damage.

Enbridge states that federal law prevents local authorities from imposing conditions on pipelines, referencing a case from Austin, Texas. However, unlike Texas, which has minimal or no local zoning, Wisconsin can require conditional use permits, for example, on land zoned for agricultural purposes where the pump station is located. Local and state governments are prohibited from interfering with pipeline safety issues, such as pipeline construction. However, local requirements regarding a post-spill situation, such as dealing with environmental damage, is allowable. The Dane County Corporation Counsel in a Sept. 16 letter indicated that such bonding would be permissible under federal law: “If a surety bond is a safety standard, it would be the proverbial closing the barn door after the horse has bolted. Therefore, in my opinion, a surety bond condition is not pre-empted by the Pipeline Safety Administration.”

I have urged members of the Dane County Zoning and Land Regulation Committee to support the requirement of a performance bond as a condition of the expansion of the pump station near Marshall. I encourage my fellow Dane county citizens to do likewise. You can email the committee members at www.countyofdane.com/committees/standing.asp?CommNum=138.

Mary Beth Elliott lives, of Madison, is a retired professor from the University of Wisconsin School of Pharmacy and a volunteer member of 350Madison as well as the Sierra Club.

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