Crude oil pumping station

Enbridge Energy's plans to build a second oil pipeline pump station next to its existing one in Dane County probably can't be predicated on creation of a spill cleanup fund, county officials are saying. The company is sharply boosting the flow of tar sands crude through Wisconsin.

JOHN HART — State Journal

After a yearlong debate, Dane County officials said Wednesday their hands are tied and they are unable to force Enbridge Energy to supply stronger assurances of a proper cleanup if the company’s crude oil pipeline fails.

“It’s just fruitless,” county zoning administrator Roger Lane said of efforts to secure extra cleanup money in the face of opposition by state lawmakers.

Environmental advocates insisted the county should require the Calgary-based company to establish a $25 million cleanup trust fund because a spill of tar sands crude could cause serious environmental damage.

Enbridge is tripling the capacity of the underground pipeline, which runs from Minnesota to Illinois, cutting through the northeast corner of Dane County where a site is currently being prepared for a new pump station.

Legally, if the county imposed a cleanup fund requirement, Enbridge would sue and probably win, assistant county attorney David Gault said in an opinion issued last month.

Politically, trying to circumvent a recently enacted state ban on cleanup insurance could trigger a punishing response from Republicans who control Wisconsin government, said Patrick Miles, chairman of the county zoning board.

“I’m guessing if we asked for $25 million upfront for a trust fund, they would react pretty quickly,” Miles said, predicting lawmakers would not only ban local requirements for the trust fund but also possibly approve a currently stalled proposal to remove the county’s zoning authority.

“I’m not interested in seeing more of our authority pulled out from under us,” Miles said. “It’s frustrating to have to be making that kind of calculus, but that’s the reality we’re dealing with.”

Spokeswomen for Gov. Scott Walker, Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, R-Rochester, and Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald, R-Juneau, didn’t provide comment. However, state Sen. Tom Tiffany, R-Hazelhurst, said in March that lawmakers were watching closely to ensure that county officials with an “ideological bent” wouldn’t block a project that promises to constrain petroleum prices for consumers.

The Madison chapter of the environmental group 350.org urged the county zoning board to require Enbridge to establish a $25 million trust fund to cover cleanup costs in case there is a spill from a tar sands pipeline that runs through the town of Medina.

The fund would have substituted for a $25 million insurance policy the board required as a condition of a zoning permit it approved April 14 for a new Medina pump station that is part of the company’s effort to sharply increase the flow in its pipeline through Wisconsin.

In June, Walker signed a 2015-17 state budget that included a provision, quietly added to the spending plan by legislators, forbidding local insurance requirements on oil pipelines.

Peter Anderson of 350.org disputed the county attorney’s analysis, saying the zoning board has the right to revoke the conditional-use permit because the public is no longer protected by the insurance requirement.

The county may continue to be pushed around by “bullies” in state government unless it stands up to them for putting interests of a foreign corporation ahead of Wisconsin residents.

The group will continue to seek legal means of protecting the state from a catastrophic spill like the one in 2010 into the Kalamazoo River in Michigan, Anderson said.

“We have to educate ourselves about what happens when the next big one occurs, especially if it’s in one of our pristine areas,” Anderson said.

Enbridge spokeswoman Jennifer Smith said in an email response to questions Wednesday the company has $860 million in general liability insurance.

In addition, there are state and federal cleanup funds and the company would dip into its own pockets if all of those sources proved insufficient as they did in the Michigan cleanup, which took more than four years and $1.2 billion.

“If a release were to occur on Enbridge’s system in Dane County (or anywhere else in Wisconsin), we will take responsibility,” said Smith, who works in the Canadian company’s Duluth office.

The zoning board required $25 million in pollution cleanup insurance on the recommendation of a consultant who said the company’s general liability insurance was subject to legal disputes like the one that has delayed insurance payments in the Michigan spill.

And while Enbridge paid the bills in Michigan, it is likely that the financial prowess of petroleum companies will decline over time just like coal companies, said the consultant, David J. Dybdahl Jr. of Middleton. Similarly, state and federal cleanup funds are not guaranteed to be maintained, Dybdahl said.

At least three Washington cities required local pollution insurance on pipelines owned by Enbridge.

In a Sept. 3 letter, attorneys for Enbridge raised several objections to the 350.org trust fund proposal but said the group could have legally appealed the conditional-use permit within 10 days after Lane, the zoning administrator, issued a revised version of it to the company.

However, due to an oversight, Lane didn’t notify zoning board members, who have the sole authority to issue conditional-use permits, of the July 24 revision until Wednesday, said Miles, the board chairman.

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Steven Verburg is a reporter for the Wisconsin State Journal covering state politics with a focus on science and the environment as well as military and veterans issues.