Which Federal Agency is Keeping Its Head in the (Tar) Sands?

Kalamazoo River polluted with raw tar sands crude
Kalamazoo River polluted with raw tar sands crude
The following is a guest post from Jeffrey Insko, who lives along the Enbridge Line 6B pipeline route in Groveland Township, Michigan with his wife Katy and dog Sam. He is an Associate Professor of English at Oakland University and writes the Line 6B Citizens’ Blog

Last week, a plume of black petroleum coke dust swirled over the Detroit River while Enbridge, the company responsible for the most expensive inland oil spill in U.S. history, returned to scooping up even more of their three year old gunk from the bottom of the Kalamazoo River. With these two awful reminders of the terrible costs of tar sands oil production in mind, I traveled from my Michigan home to Washington DC, along with other concerned citizens, conservationists, and representatives from the National Wildlife Federation.

Our mission: To talk with regulators and legislators about the dangers – to our stable climate, to wildlife, and to our communities – posed by the increased production and transportation of tar sands. But one agency wasn’t listening.

For me, this issue literally hits home – Enbridge has a pipeline running right through my backyard. As the oil industry barrels forward with various complicated schemes to move tar sands oil from Alberta through our communities to export off of our coasts, our government has been slow to react. It’s been left to citizens to call for caution and reasonable measures designed to safeguard our natural resources and the rights of landowners in the face of the oil industry’s overwhelming resources and influence.

Among those reasonable measure is a citizen petition calling for new regulations to protect wildlife and people from the risks of tar sands. Spearheaded by the National Wildlife Federation and signed by a broad coalition of conservation groups and individuals, the petition seeks stricter rules that account for the unique properties of tar sands oil.

The rules we seek are so sensible, so uncontroversial, that it’s hard to believe they don’t already exist. For instance:

  • Industry reporting of what materials are being transported through pipelines
  • The development of spill response plans that account for the unique properties of tar sands
  • A requirement that operators immediately shut down and repair lines carrying tar sands as soon as operators discover safety defects
  • greater transparency in pipeline inspection reporting

We spent the day on Capitol Hill urging public officials to push for the adoption of these simple measures. Congressional staffers, representatives of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, and even representatives from the U.S. State Department met with us and listened to our concerns. Some seemed receptive. But there was one agency that was not only not receptive, but that flatly declined even to meet with us: the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Administration (PHMSA).

If you don’t know PHMSA, you should. It’s the agency charged with regulating pipeline safety, the agency that would be responsible for actually implementing the rules called for in the petition. It also happens to be the agency that the National Transportation Safety Board criticized for its “weak regulation” and “ineffective oversight” in its report on the 2010 tar sands spill in Marshall, Michigan. PHMSA might well be the poster-child for toothless regulatory will and industry coziness.

Yet given its pivotal role in our pipeline safety system and its less-than-impressive track record, one would think PHMSA would be first in line to take action and to consider paths for regaining the public trust. Instead, PHMSA is dragging its feet and dodging the very people whose interests it exists to protect, burying its head deep in the (tar) sands.

Take Action ButtonEnbridge is proposing to nearly double the amount of tar sands oil moving through the Alberta Clipper pipeline, increasing the risk and size of a spill that would put wood turtles and their waters in danger. Ask the State Department to say no to Enbridge’s tar sands expansion plans.