Wisconsin Supreme Court Takes Up Crude Oil Pipeline Debate

Mar 27, 2019

Canadian pipeline company Enbridge thought its underground pipeline would be pumping three times its original load of crude oil three years ago. But disputes with Dane County have slowed down the process with demands that the company carry extra insurance in case its residents are impacted by a potential spill.

Tuesday the Wisconsin Supreme Court took up the debate.

The story begins in 2014 when Enbridge applied for a permit from Dane County.

A dozen pumping stations were added along Line 61 expand its capacity to 1.2 million barrels per day.
Credit Enbridge

It would be the site of one of the pumping stations the company needed to triple the flow of Canadian tar sands oil in Line 61 from Superior in to a terminal in Illinois.

Some people were concerned about the environmental risks posed by 1.2 million barrels of crude oil flowing through the underground pipeline every day.

READ: Wisconsin Pipeline Slated To Surpass Keystone XL's Proposed Capacity

That included Carl Whiting, a member of the climate action group 350 Madison. He showed me the pumping station site in rural Dane County back in January 2015 as I reported on the story.

"You have to understand that Line 61 at its full flow rate will fill an Olympic-size swimming pool three times over and be working on a fourth in a single hour – I don’t even want to think about what would happen to ... any of these wetlands or tributaries if there were to be a breach of this massive pipeline," Whiting said.

Concern was heightened because of a 2010 Enbridge rupture. It happened in Kalamazoo, Mich., resulting in $1.2 billion in damages.

While reporting in early 2015, Enbridge spokesperson Becky Haase told me the Kalamazoo disaster prompted Enbridge to retool every facet of its safety and emergency system. And Haase described Line 61 as a state-of-the art system.

"Being constructed in 2007, that's a new pipeline and it has the latest construction technology available. It has anti-corrosive coatings, it's got variable frequency drives, it has any number of things," Haase said.

The environmental group 350 Madison wasn't appeased. It urged Dane County officials to build a condition in its permit that would require Enbridge to provide special insurance in case of a spill.

The county's zoning committee settled on a $25 million environmental liability policy.

Republican lawmakers swooped in, inserting a last minute provision in the 2015 state budget. It bars counties from requiring interstate hazardous liquid pipelines to obtain additional insurance.

A group of Dane County residents who live close to the Enbridge pipeline filed a lawsuit.

Justice Ann Walsh Bradley during Tuesday's Enbridge pipeline expansion arguments.
Credit WisconsinEye

The case has been bouncing from court to court ever since. 

Now, the Wisconsin Supreme Court has to puzzle out how to draw a line in the sand between state law and local control.

Attorney Patricia Hammel represents the landowners. She said it's not clear Enbridge is carrying adequate insurance to cover their homes, families, and properties in case of a spill.

"Enbridge's insurance expired May 15, 2015 ... Enbridge has to produce proof of insurance on demand," Hammel said.

Enbridge attorney Eric McLeod.
Credit WisconsinEye

Eric McLeod dismissed Hammel's concerns. McLeod represents Enbridge and says it is carrying even more insurance now than it did during early negotiations with Dane County.

"At the December [2015] hearing before the County Board, Enbridge’s counsel pointed out to the County Board, 'Enbridge has $700 million worth of general liability insurance which includes sudden and accidental pollution coverage.' That by the way has been raised to $860 million," McLeod said.

Whether the company has its way or the people, rests in the hand state Supreme Court.

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