Responding to requests from the Sierra Club and other environmental groups, the U.S. Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) has launched a rare public investigation into the conduct of the company that built the Dakota Access pipeline, Energy Transfer Partners, now working on a US$4.2 billion gas conduit from Michigan across Ohio to western Pennsylvania and northern West Virginia.
So far, “construction of the Rover natural gas line has caused seven industrial spills, polluted fragile Ohio wetlands, and angered local farmers,” Bloomberg reports. The pushback, including the unusual investigation by the federal agency, now “threatens to delay the pipeline’s scheduled November 1 completion.”
Energy Transfer Partners earned global attention and condemnation when it enlisted military tactics to push its Dakota Access line through entrenched resistance last year. DAPL sprung its first leak before it officially entered service.
The company got off on the wrong foot with its latest undertaking, even before major construction began, when it demolished an historic heritage dwelling along its right of way last year. That act incurred a $1.5-million restitution payment and prompted FERC to deny ETP a blanket permit for the entire project, requiring it instead “to seek federal approvals at virtually every stage of construction.”
Then, pushing pipe through flat farmland under heavy rain earlier this year, “crews had to drain excessive water and find a way to dispose of it. Farmers complained that the company was dumping it on their fields, interrupting planting.” Over a month, Ohio’s Environmental Protection Agency documented seven spills of industrial drilling fluid along the Rover construction route and issued the company more than a dozen citations for improperly dumping waste in streams.
When the company refused to pay $914,000 in state fines, arguing that the Ohio EPA lacked jurisdiction over a federally-approved project, the state agency’s director appealed directly to FERC Chair Cheryl LaFleur. In response, the agency “barred Energy Transfer from any new drilling pending an assessment,” Bloomberg notes. “The agency also started an enforcement probe into the spills, a move that could result in civil penalties, delays, or additional investigations by other agencies.”
Several spills of drilling fluid, “a slurry of non-toxic bentonite clay and water,” ended up coating Ohio wetlands. “Whatever lived in the wetland was suffocated beneath a foot or more of clay mud and subsequently suctioned up by vacuum trucks,” said Ohio EPA spokesperson James Lee. “The affected wetland will likely not recover to its previous condition for decades.”
Ohio farmer Ben Polasek owns several parcels of land along the Rover route. “They’ll do what they want, and they don’t care who they step on to get there,” he told Bloomberg. “It’s all about how quickly they can get that pipe in the ground.”
“We’ve not seen a project in Ohio with spills at this size and scale,” added Heather Taylor-Miesle, executive director of the Ohio Environmental Council. “If we can’t even trust Rover to construct this pipeline, how can we trust them to operate it when it’s complete?”
The series of incidents prompted Sierra Club to ask FERC last week for a wider investigation, arguing that “the unprecedented number and widespread impact of the company’s environmental violations demonstrate, at best, a complete breakdown in the professionalism of its construction preparations.”
According to Bloomberg’s analysis of U.S. federal safety data, ETP “has one of the highest [spill] incident rates for oil pipelines among the top operators.”
The company’s billionaire CEO, Kelcy Warren, had promised that sections of the 1,147-kilometre pipeline would begin pumping gas next month. With work idled, the company now “stands to lose more than US$10 million a week if it misses the deadline,” Bloomberg estimates.