In Search of the Enbridge Spearhead with Reflections on the Flanagan South
By Helen Woerner
Editor’s note: This is a long article for the Planet Kansas, and I thought about editing for length, but I found I could not stop reading. Great job, Helen!! Some of the photos are from a later trek in November by Sierrans from all over the state to the area of the pipeline in Kansas.
On a beautiful morning last August, taking advantage of some exceptionally mild weather, my husband and I loaded up our kayaks and a set out on a mission. We wanted to find and photograph the Enbridge Spearhead oil pipeline where it crosses the Marais de Cygne River and Wildlife Refuge and see where the company’s new partner pipeline, the Flanagan South, would be built, if approved.
Enbridge Inc., a Canadian company headquartered in the tar sands capital of Alberta, proposes to run its new tar sands pipeline from Flanagan, Illinois, near Chicago, to their terminal in Cushing, Oklahoma, a distance of roughly 600 miles. From Cushing an existing pipeline would carry the crude, mostly diluted bitumen, or ‘dilbit’, to the Gulf Coast for refining and eventual export (pipeline routes; Spearhead line ).
We have had a crash course in pipelines, thanks to our participation in the movement to halt TransCanada’s Keystone XL. Like the KXL, Enbridge’s Flanagan South would carry toxic tar sands oil through the United States, entailing similar environmental risks, not only locally through the possibility of leakage and ruptures, but also in the tar sand industry’s devastation of an area of Canadian boreal forest the size of Florida and contamination of adjoining lands and waterways in what has been called ‘the most destructive project on Earth’. Perhaps most significantly, the project would also contribute to the global crisis of climate change since pipelines like the KXL and the Flanagan South provide transport infrastructure that is essential to tar sands exploitation.
Click on images for larger image
The Sierra Club and a number of regional environmental groups like the Great Plains Tar Sands Resistance, Tar Sands Free Midwest, and Kansas Climate Action have opposed the Flanagan South pipeline. But figuring out how to take effective action on this project is a challenge. For one thing, the proposal is not open to public comment. Whereas the KXL requires a Presidential permit, Flanagan South’s fate is decided by the Army Corps of Engineers.
Enbridge has requested a Nationwide 12 “expedited permit review,” a fast-track process exempting it from Clean Water Act requirements and public notification. We were appalled to learn that although the Flanagan South would cross major US rivers, including the Missouri and the Mississippi, as well as thousands of smaller waterways, the expedited review request characterizes the 600-mile course not as one pipeline, but rather as a collection of mini-projects in order to meet the permitting requirement that each water crossing disrupt no more than half an acre of wetlands. According to attorney Doug Hayes of the Sierra Club, “This is a 600-mile project that will clear everything in its path for a 100-foot right of way. And they’re treating it as thousands of separate, little projects…The effect in the end is that they never analyze the environmental impact under the National Environmental Policy Act” (NEPA). NEPA would require the assessment of the likelihood and potential impact of an oil spill. According to Hayes, in the entire Nationwide Permit 12 application, there is not a single mention of oil spills.
Despite the lack of public input required for its approval, Canadian-owned Enbridge had attempted to build public support for the project along its projected route. Earlier in August we made a point of attending an Enbridge “open house” for communities along the pipeline route. At the Iola, Kansas, event, on signing in at welcome desk at the North Community Building, visitors were greeted by smiling Enbridge personnel offering glossy brochures bearing titles like “Safely Transporting North America’s Largest Reserve of Crude Oil,” “Operating Safely along Our Pipeline Routes,” and “Emergency Prepared.” In regards to safety, we had a number of questions for the company reps:
How could Enbridge claim a strong safety record when it was responsible for the 2010 Spearhead pipeline spill which dumped over a million gallons of tar sands oil into Talmadge Creek near Marshall, Michigan, contaminating over 35 miles of the Kalamazoo River, disrupting the lives and threatening the health of the local community—and which has still not been cleaned up?
Why did the EPA cite Enbridge for negligence and fine the company over $3.7 million for the Kalamazoo River spill? What, exactly, were the 24 enforcement actions against Enbridge taken by the US Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA)?
The company’s own data acknowledges that over 800 spills occurred at Enbridge pipelines between 1999 and 2010, releasing approximately 6.8 million gallons of hydrocarbons. According to PHMSA, there were 115 Enbridge pipeline spills between 2006 and 2012, which released 40,270 barrels of hydrocarbons, caused $620 million worth of damage, and resulted in two fatalities. How could the company account for these accidents in terms of their purported safety record?
In response to our other questions about pipeline security, we learned that the Flanagan South was to be laid UNDER, not over waterways–using a ‘horizontal drilling’ technique. And yes, they did intend to run the pipeline under the Mississippi River. “Under the Mississippi?” I echoed. “But dilbit is extremely corrosive. What about a rupture? How would you clean up a spill?” We were told that, first, the Flanagan South product was not, technically, ‘dilbit’. So in the unlikely event of a spill, the oil would simply “float to the top” where it could be “skimmed off using barges carrying booms.” Despite these questionable assurances, it was difficult to picture how a rupture in a pipeline located many feet beneath a river like the Mississippi would play out—how would the line be accessed for repair? How would they clean up a major dilbit spill in the Mississippi River? Where would the oil actually end up? Are we really willing to gamble the Mississippi River for the profits of a Canadian oil company?
The specific location of the proposed Flanagan South was difficult to determine. At the open house we had picked up a brochure with a rough sketch of the route. Nobody we spoke to outside the company seemed to know exactly where the pipeline would be situated, but we knew it would parallel the old Spearhead line. Using a fairly good interactive map we found online (dilbit pipeline) and a river map from Dave Murphy’s book, Kayaking Kansas, we thought we had pinned down the pipeline’s location in Linn County and identified about where it should cross the Marais de Cygne River in the Wildlife Reserve: just below the Trego Road Boat Ramp, three or four miles upstream from something called the Trading Post on Hwy 69. We estimated it would be about a two and a half hour drive from Lyndon to the site.
Leaving our house about sunrise, we picked up Hwy 68 East out of Ottawa, planning to turn south on US 69 just before Louisburg, about 20 miles from Kansas City. We estimated the Spearhead pipeline would cross Highway 69 approximately five miles south of Highway 152 near La Cygne Lake and then run southwest about five more miles through the Wildlife Reserve to its crossing point at the Marais de Cygne River. The river crossing was our ultimate destination, the point where the pipeline could pose the greatest risk to the river and the La Cygne Waterfowl Area.
I wasn’t driving, so I used my ipad to search for updates on the Spearhead. I’d been checking the InsideClimate News website regularly after reading The Dilbit Disaster, their Pulitzer Prize-winning report on the 6B Spearhead segment that produced the Kalamazoo River catastrophe.
I learned that Enbridge bought the Spearhead line, constructed in the 1950s, from BP in 2003. The 20-24 inch pipeline was originally designed to transport conventional oil, not dilbit. Unlike conventional crude, tar sands bitumen has a very high viscosity and is diluted with a variety of chemicals (including hydrogen sulfide, benzene, and heavy metals like nickel and arsenic) to flow through pipelines.
When up and running, the Flanagan South will be another link in the chain of transport for Canadian tar sands oil. The new 36-inch pipeline will have a carrying capacity of 830,000 barrels of oil; combined with the converted Spearhead line, 783,000 barrels per day are scheduled to pass through American lands and under our rivers and waterways. Like the KXL, the Enbridge pipelines will facilitate the refining, marketing, and further extraction of tar sands oil which Dr. James Hansen, former lead climatologist for NASA, has called, “game over for the planet.”
Hansen’s words were in my mind as we passed through the scenic countryside along Highway 68, where the well-maintained, prosperous-looking farms and country homes had an air of timelessness and invincibility. The corn and milo crops were ripening on schedule, gardens were replete with impressive-looking tomato plants and rows of bush beans; herds of fat cattle and glossy-coated horses grazed peacefully in belly-high grasses as the cool morning breeze blew through our open car windows. All seemed well. Yet juxtaposed over the scene was my uncomfortable awareness of the fragility of our ecosystem in the face of the changes human beings are wreaking upon the planet. Last year at this time, I thought, the drive would have been a very different experience, given the nightmarish Great Dust Bowl-like conditions of the summer of 2012. Climate science predicts that the future for our region holds more years like 2012 than like the current year, with permanent ‘dustbowlification’ possible by 2040. Perhaps the fates were offering us a glimpse of what we stand to lose if we don’t speedily transition away from our extractive economy to renewable energy—a planet-friendly future we now know is entirely achievable.
About 30 miles south of Louisburg, following our route on the map though idyllic, undulating terrain and approaching La Cygne Lake (where I had been hoping we could stop for a swim), we noticed a looming industrial structure of some kind under a cloud of smoke on the eastern horizon. –What on earth? Unfamiliar with this part of Kansas, we hadn’t recognized the La Cygne Power Plant, Linn County icon of the Coal Era. Constructed in the 1970’s, this behemoth is still churning out electric power at 33% efficiency while annually emitting over 10,331,008 tons of greenhouse gasses (2006 data), along with fine-particle pollution from soot, acid particles, and heavy metals. According to a 2011 Clean Air Task Force study, health and mortality ‘costs’ from the La Cygna plant total over $200 billion yearly from deaths (28), heart attacks (43), asthma attacks and ER visits (510), chronic bronchitis (17), and unspecified hospital admissions (21). The dam for the scenic reservoir was one of those Faustian bargains with coal-fired electrical generation; the lake was constructed to cool the power plant which is situated at its eastern end. La Cygne is the second highest polluting power plant in Kansas, after the Jeffries installation, and holds the distinction of ranking 16th in the nation for coal ash production: in 2006 it released 2,127,000 pounds of toxic combustion waste to surface impoundments.
Forgoing the swim, we opted instead for a snack at the Longhorn Restaurant, whose sign we saw at the junction with Hwy 152. We hoped its extensive parking area signaled a popularity with truckers that might mean good coffee. Behind the café was a row of cabins, probably intended for anglers attracted by the lake’s promise of excellent catfish, crappie, and “some of the best largemouth bass in the state,” which were said to congregate near the plant’s hot water outlets. In deciding whether to actually eat any fish they catch, people can consult the consumption advisories on the Kansas Department of Wildlife, Parks, & Tourism site
which have guidelines for EPA-classified cacogenic contaminants as well as “non-cacogenic-assessed” substances like mercury, lead, and cadmium, with special precautionary advice for infants and for women of childbearing age (“consult with their physician”) as well as a tip for PCB-intake reduction: only eat the fillets.
After refills of some surprisingly decent coffee, we took the short drive to the power plant entrance for a souvenir photo and then headed back onto Hwy 69 to search for the first Spearhead crossing. We noticed a large numerical aerial surveillance marker at a spot corresponding to the pipeline route marked on our map, across from what appeared to be a clearance running into a ditch. Our mission compelled us to investigate. We pulled off onto a small side road which we followed to a larger graveled clearance area posted with a ‘No Trespassing’ sign. Beyond, at the edge of a soybean field, we could see a metal-fenced installation enclosing wheels, levers, and pipes and covered with warning signs. This had to be the Spearhead. It looked as if the pipeline crossed a stream there, heading west.
We couldn’t find a way to follow the pipeline any further on Hwy 69, so we drove back to the 152 crossing and took a likely-looking gravel road in the direction of the Reserve. We tried to pick up the course of the pipeline again, but it had disappeared into the farmland. Driving along, we wondered how much people here knew about the Spearhead and whether they had any opinion about the Flanagan South. When the Enbridge line ruptured in Michigan in 2010, most local residents hadn’t even known it existed. Had Enbridge reached agreements about the Flanagan South addition with Linn County property owner? Were there any holdouts on the Kansas route, like the landowners in Illinois, Michigan, and Minnesota who were refusing to sign?
In other parts of the US and Canada, pipeline safety standards and emergency response preparedness have been issues of contention along pipeline routes, and people have achieved some concessions elsewhere regarding construction specifications, shut-off valve distances, and safety standards. Did people living in this fine Kansas countryside know that, according to federal regulations, their land is not a ‘High Consequence Area’? Construction and maintenance standards for pipelines here would be considerably lower than HCA standards. Emergency shut-off valves, for instance, would be located much further apart (in some rural areas, the distance between shut-off valves in Enbridge lines is over 30 kilometers).
Federal standards for hazardous liquid transport define HCAs as either high population areas, unusually sensitive areas (drinking water sources or ‘ecological resource areas especially responsive to environmental damage’, or commercially navigable waterways). According to Enbridge information, the government supplies operators with maps depicting HCA locations, but elsewhere, pipeline operators, themselves, are ‘independently’ responsible for evaluating pipeline risk potential.
Enbridge’s published list of risk assessments should raise concerns about the aging Spearhead line. Its “threat categories” include: “metal loss or corrosion, pipe deformation (such as denting caused by third-party digging near the pipeline), cracking related to steel manufacturing processes or exposure to natural environments, and incorrect operations.”
I wondered if it were possible to calculate how much oil might be spilled in the event of a rupture in the area we were driving through. Math problem: You and your family own a stretch of land here. This is not a High Consequence Area, so the Spearhead line shut-off valves on your property are ten miles apart. At that time, Enbridge has been granted its permission for a line capacity increase to 200,000 barrels of tar sands oil per day. Let’s say that on January 2 at 10 p.m. the Spearhead line ruptures between the shut-off valves at Point A and Point B on your land. At 6 a.m. the next morning your neighbor, heading off for his Longhorn coffee in spite of the blizzard, calls and says he noticed a black fluid flooding pooling up in your lower pasture. You call 911 to report the problem and at 8 a.m. Enbridge shuts down the Point A and Point B valves (in the Kalamazoo River case, although headquarters’ alarms sounded repeatedly, it took Enbridge over 18 hours to recognize the spill and shut down the flow of oil). The question would be: What is the total amount of tar sands oil spilled onto your land?
Now let’s try the problem again using Flanagan South numbers: Suppose the pipeline is carrying 830,000 barrels of oil per day…?
The Marais de Cygne National Wildlife Refuge would surely be a High Consequence Area. Established in 1992 to restore and protect the sort of bottomland hardwood forests that are unique to this region, the refuge encompasses 7,500 acres, with 5,000 open to the public for recreational use. Over 300 species of birds nest in or visit the Reserve; the river and wetlands areas support an abundance of fish, mussels, and amphibians, as well as a wide range of reptiles and mammals.
Referring to the line we had drawn on the Kayaking Kansas map, we aimed our course for the point in the Reserve where we thought the Spearhead would cross the Marais de Cygne River, taking a series of turns along smaller and smaller dirt roads until we came to an intersection with a road called E 1700, just before a bridge. According to our map, we had reached the Marais de Cygne River. The Spearhead pipeline should cross the river here just to the east of the bridge, to our left. A place called Boicourt would be on the other side of the bridge and the railroad tracks; campgrounds and river access should be downstream.
We got out of the car for a look at the water. It was about 30 feet wide under the bridge, probably not deep, greenish-brown, of course, but fairly clear. The river was banked by a rocky, steeply sloping ground covered with thick brush, tall grasses, vines (poison ivy, no doubt) and trees. Tossing a stick into the water, I noticed very little current. From the bridge we didn’t see any way to walk along the edge of the river and locate the pipeline crossing; however, there was a stretch a hundred feet or so upriver that could be the pipeline clearance, since clearances were supposed to kept accessible at all times. Walking back along E1700, we saw another numerical marker and a fenced, signposted installation like the one we had found off Hwy 68. This had to be the place. Behind the marker a wide swath of trees had been cut for the pipeline’s course, stretching back as far as we could see from the road. On the other side of E1700, we assumed, the old Spearhead must be buried in the bean field next to the river.
So there it was: the Spearhead pipeline. A small, unobtrusive cylinder silently transporting the toxic product of the most destructive project on earth through our ‘protected’ Wildlife Reserve, then just missing the tip of little Boicourt Lake a few miles away and passing through six more Kansas counties before it crossed into Oklahoma, where, perhaps, its dilbit blend would spend some time off-gassing hydrocarbons in a Cushing storage tank before wending its way to the Gulf Coast refineries.
We had completed our mission. There was nothing to do but enjoy the rest of the day. The river proved nicely accessible from a picnic area. Floating along, we observed some carp skimming the surface openmouthed and a turtle basking on a half-submerged branch; a couple of herons flew off complaining we had disturbed them, but barring the soothing voices of the birds and the sound of the breeze in the trees, all was exceptionally quiet and peaceful. We had a lovely float for a few miles and then easily paddled back to where we had started.
On the drive back we stopped again at the Longhorn to try out their burgers. I tried to talk about tar sands oil, but the effort felt futile. We had been, we had seen, and now…?
So, really, the question was: What were we going to do?
Every one of us in the Sierra Club knows now that we are on the precipice of climate change catastrophe. We are aware that pipelines like the Keystone XL and the Flanagan South are critical components of commercial tar sands exploitation and the extractive industrial/economic system that is wrecking the planet. We have seen courageous individuals in groups like Oklahoma-based Great Plains Tar Sands Resistance, Tar Sands Blockade, and Earth First! standing with the First Nations peoples’ like Idle No More, literally putting their lives on the line to oppose tar sands projects through direct action. We hear that the fossil fuel financial divestment movement initiated by Bill McKibben and 350.org., is growing on campuses and in communities worldwide. And we understand that we are running out of time. So now: What?
In mid-November a group of Sierra Club members visited the Flanagan South construction site in the Marais de Cygne Wildlife Reserve, where work was just beginning. We walked around, took photos, spoke with employees, and shared our impressions over dinner that afternoon. Everyone agreed that significant action was needed against tar sands extraction and climate change. People floated a lot of intriguing suggestions for ways individuals in the Sierra Club could contribute more effectively to common aims. We agreed we wanted to see greater member involvement and try out new approaches. There was a lot of energy in the air. When someone at the table asked who would be willing to take direct action, we all raised our hands.
So the question remains: What are we Kansas Sierra Club members willing to do about the pipelines crossing our state and the prospect of catastrophic climate change that threatens our future and the lives of future generations?
For more information about the Spearhead and the Flanagan South, or to offer suggestions, initiate actions, or participate in future events having to do with climate change including fossil fuel divestment, tar sands extraction, and pipeline issues, contact Helen Woerner (firstname.lastname@example.org), Lori Lawrence (email@example.com), or Yvonne Cather (Yvonne.firstname.lastname@example.org). Or check Kansas Climate Action for updates.