Pipeline abandonment emerges as key issue in Grand Rapids
GRAND RAPIDS -- The story of how this mill and hockey town became the epicenter of the pipeline abandonment debate took the News Tribune to St. Andrew's Lutheran Church. Located less than a mile due north off U.S. Highway 2, the church sits on th...
GRAND RAPIDS - The story of how this mill and hockey town became the epicenter of the pipeline abandonment debate took the News Tribune to St. Andrew's Lutheran Church.
Located less than a mile due north off U.S. Highway 2, the church sits on the edge of town with its back facing the west shore of McKinney Lake.
With roots as a mission, the church was built in the early 1990s. White pines rise like an amphitheater around it.
"It was designed to protect and preserve as much of the natural habitat as possible," said Megan Crouch, one of St. Andrew's two veteran pastors.
Crouch's footfalls crunched in the snow earlier this month as she made her way to the well-marked Enbridge Line 3 oil pipeline easement which parallels Northwest 16th Street in front of the church before bending northwest into a long corridor out of town.
As the state weighs approval of a new Line 3 along an altered route, the question of what to do with the old line was not lost among the city leaders of Grand Rapids. In a June letter to the Minnesota Department of Commerce, which is in charge of considering the Line 3 project, the mayor and City Council wrote, "Since Line 3 runs directly through our Wellhead Protection Area, which is the sole source of municipal water for two cities (Grand Rapids and La Prairie), the City is requesting that you require the total removal of Line 3 within the WHPA."
The St. Andrew's church council adopted the same position in a resolution and wrote it into the council minutes, Crouch said.
"Active pipelines? We have nothing to say about those," Crouch said. "But if (Line 3) is abandoned in this area, we want it cleaned up."
In November, the church hosted a gathering of two dozen landowners from Carlton to Cohasset and other interested parties, including organizers with Minnesotans for Pipeline Cleanup. They came to hear about a prospective compromise in the form of what is being called a "work-plan," which city officials confirmed is in development with Enbridge. They have yet to produce it publicly because the work-plan remains tied up in the legal departments between the parties.
"People are interested in building off whatever emerges in Grand Rapids," said Minnesotans for Pipeline Cleanup spokesman Allen Richardson of Duluth. "There is wide support among the landowners along the line for removal."
Oil company position
Enbridge has been installing pipelines into Grand Rapids for a long time, said project director for Line 3 execution Barry Simonson, who described over the phone both the first built in 1949-50 and most recent construction in 2009. Most of a half-dozen Enbridge pipelines run in the same corridor through the city. The close proximity of one pipe to another is a factor in Enbridge's position to leave the old Line 3 where it is, should it be approved for replacement.
Simonson called it "the most sound method," given the complexity of working near active and flowing pipelines.
Until recent years, such an explanation sufficed in keeping abandonment away from the flame of heavy criticism.
"When I (saw) the letter come in about full removal," Simonson said, "I was surprised - for the relationship we have with the city."
Abandonment, or "deactivation in place," would include the employment of various methods, including cleaning out the old pipe using a pigging device, filling some of the pipe with gravel or grout and welding caps on segments.
Left in place, Simonson said less than a gallon of oil total would remain in the full length of the old pipeline which runs from northeastern Alberta to Superior - two places where construction of the new Line 3 pipeline already is happening while Minnesota awaits a spring/summer decision from regulators.
Out-and-out pipeline removal generally is left for pipes that are either an impediment to further land use, a safety concern or an issue from an environmental perspective, Simonson explained. He described the case for removal of a shallow pipe which wasn't allowing a Minnesota farmer full access to his field as the sort of situation which would require extraction - also citing a segment of line that became buoyant and impeded the flow of the Tamarack River west of Cromwell.
Simonson verbally batted away the usual arguments against abandonment:
- Rusting pipes collapse. "It takes hundreds of years to have structural collapse," he said.
- Old pipe introduces new and unforeseen water flowage. "It's fairly flat; the water isn't going anywhere," he added.
- Pipes left behind simply hurt the environment. Removal risks hurting it more, he said in so many words.
"It's not easy to take it out right if you have 34-inch pipeline weighing 11,000 pounds per 80-foot joint," Simonson said, calling it a lot of heavy equipment reintroduced into a lot of delicate areas, including agricultural fields and saturated wetlands - such as what's surrounding the area outside St. Andrew's church.
Working on a compromise
There are six wells, five active, from which Grand Rapids draws the source water for its citizens. The wells fall within a broader geographic area city water manager Dennis Doyle called "the footprint of the source water for our citizens."
Governed by a roughly 10-year-old and recently renewed Wellhead Protection Plan, the city's source water is the subject of that document's 475 mostly scientific pages. It's all on file with both the state and federal governments and is a requirement in modern-day funding mechanisms for even the smallest municipalities.
"Our wellhead protection team is made up of people from zoning, city engineers, the general manager and water plant people," Doyle said, while defining the team's role by saying, "We are required to mitigate potential contaminant sources."
Doyle joined Grand Rapids Public Utilities General Manager Julie Kennedy in meeting with the News Tribune to discuss the months of talks which have unfolded between city officials and Enbridge since the city's letter calling for full removal of the pipeline.
"Until we come up with a plan approved through both legal departments," Kennedy said, "that is our recommendation - to remove the entire two miles."
But the public utilities officials also addressed the compromise work-plan awaiting legal approval. In it, the city would not press for full removal, allowing some capped segmenting along the route to go with various removal points. Doyle said the technical details of the plan were "fairly well in place and established."
"(Enbridge) technical staff has been fantastic as far as us working together," Kennedy said, explaining how she and others became convinced that bulkheading abandoned segments is preferable to disturbing, via old Line 3 removal, bundles of active pipelines and some of the more delicate topography.
Segments of pipeline not removed would be subjected to additional testing and monitoring. The city has asked for outside agency soil sampling along the route, and who pays for it is among the legal sticking points between Enbridge and the city, Kennedy explained. If completed, a work-plan would be presented in open meetings for public comment, Kennedy added.
Because the work-plan isn't finalized, Enbridge's Simonson said he could not discuss potential details as described by city officials.
"We're hoping we can develop a work-plan that meets everyone's needs," Kennedy said. "We're optimistic we'll get to that point."
A biblical responsibility?
Across Northwest 16th Street from St. Andrew's Church is the Itasca Recreation Association Civic Center - a hockey arena and also an "economic development" site for official purposes. It's one place still ticketed to see the old Line 3 pipeline removed, Kennedy said.
St. Andrew's Church is not likely to draw the same distinction. After Line 3 passes in front of the arena, it travels underneath the road on its way to the church, where it is one of six pipelines carrying under the church's two driveways on the way out of town, sources said. Deactivation in place is the likely fate of the old Line 3 in front of the church, but Pastor Crouch wonders about that.
Leaving it in is leaving behind something "foreign to the environment," she said.
Crouch has thought a lot about pipeline abandonment in relation to the Bible, she said, explaining, "It's the only way I'm qualified to speak about this, is biblically. I'm not a politician or an expert on pipelines. But in Genesis, God creates for joy and for life and for relationship, and we are called to be stewards of the earth. Part of what God commands for humanity is to be in relationship with creation - to care for it, to nurture it and to help it produce abundantly and not to disregard it, not to ignore it and not to take advantage of it."
Oil and petroleum products are gifts to be used wisely, she added, making her point by saying, "I drive a car; I have plastic products."
On Jan. 6, the congregation will celebrate Epiphany outside in the church's wooded backyard. There will be a bonfire fueled by the church members' Christmas trees. Cleaning up afterward is as important as securing the burning permits and enjoying the event, Crouch said as a metaphor for what she believes is Enbridge's responsibility.
"If they put it in," she said of the Line 3 pipeline, "they should take it out."