A group that initially formed to battle against a proposed taconite iron ore mine and processing plant in northern Wisconsin is turning its attention to oil and gas pipelines.
The Penokee Hills Education Project is re-engaging "to raise public awareness and get more information about" Enbridge Energy pipelines that run across northern Wisconsin from a major oil terminal in Superior into Michigan's Upper Peninsula.
The group hopes to hold public meetings in coming months to learn about pipeline safety, potential oil spill response measures and to find out about Enbridge plans to replace or add pipelines in the corridor that roughly parallels U.S. Highway 2 across the northern counties of Wisconsin.
The Enbridge lines in the area hadn't received much attention until last week when Bad River Band of Lake Superior Chippewa announced they are taking steps to kick Enbridge's Line 5 pipeline off tribal property, a move that would either shut the pipeline down or force Enbridge to reroute it around the reservation. Bad River Band officials have directed staff to begin planning for the Line 5 removal citing concerns over potential oil spills.
Enbridge, formerly Lakehead Pipeline Co., has leased an easement for the oil line since the pipeline was laid in 1953. The Line 5 pipeline moves 540,000 barrels per day - 22.7 million gallons - of crude oil, synthetic crude oil and natural gas liquids which are refined into propane. "These products heat homes and businesses, fuel vehicles, and power industry," the company said in a statement in response to the band's actions last week, adding that they hoped to resume negotiations with the band.
Frank Koehn, president of the Penokee Hills group, said the effort isn't necessarily anti-pipeline but wants to address rising public concerns about pipeline safety in general.
"This is a public education effort, not a protest,'' Koehn told the News Tribune Wednesday.
Koehn, of Ashland, said the Penokee group marshalled public support to help oppose the Gogebic Taconite project that was ultimately scuttled by investors in early 2015 as the demand and price for iron ore crashed far below levels where the project was viable.
The Penokee group was concerned with potential runoff from the mine spoiling local waterways. Now, they say they want more information on the potential of pipelines to damage waterways.
"We have a lot of wetlands crossed by these pipelines, a lot of rivers and streams,'' said Richard Ketring of Ashland.
"It's the same people. The same backyards,'' that the pipelines threaten that were once threatened by the mine, Koehn said. "This becomes an extension of that effort. It's the same water. The same fish. The same wild rice."
Koehn said public concern about pipelines that has risen to new levels with the Dakota Access Pipeline protest in North Dakota and longstanding concerns in Michigan about potential water pollution from pipeline spills into the Great Lakes environment, especially after the 2010 Enbridge pipeline rupture that spilled some 1 million gallons of oil into the Kalamazoo River.
Koehn said the Penokee group hopes to walk the Enbridge Line 5 and Line 3 pipeline routes across northern Wisconsin "as much as legally possible" to see what waterways are most threatened.
He said he also hope to invite Enbridge to community meetings in coming months.
Shannon Gustafson, Enbridge spokeswoman in the Twin Ports, said the company welcomes community conversations.
"We certainly believe in engaging in conversations with people all along our pipelines,'' she said. "But we haven't received any communication from this group. We haven't been invited to participate in anything at this point."
The Penokee group was part of a series of "pipeline awareness meetings" this week in Bad River, Red Cliff, Ashland, Washburn and Bayfield attended by John Bolenbaugh -- who worked for an Enbridge contractor during the Kalamazoo River cleanup -- who has raised questions about Enbridge pipeline safety and what he says was incomplete cleanup efforts at the Kalamazoo River spill.