The Flint water connection to fracking

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The Karegnondi pipeline running from Flint to Lake Huron might be a conduit to forcing more residents off of groundwater wells that will be affected by fracking, and onto the Karegnondi water system. Photo from Karegnondi.org

by LuAnne Kozma

People have been contacting us about the possibility that one reason for Flint’s plans for a new pipeline for water from Lake Huron through the recently formed Karegnondi Water Authority, is to provide water to the frack industry. This first came up in a blogpost “Could the Flint water crisis have its origins in a desire to open up new areas of Michigan to fracking?” and it’s been repeated in other reporting, such as Motor City Muckraker and Eclectablog.

The more likely connection: free groundwater for the frackers, Karegnondi water at a price for everyone else

UnknownA connection is there, but unless new evidence turns up, it’s not that the new Karegnondi pipeline necessarily would provide water directly to the frack industry. Instead, the likely scenario is that as the gas and oil industry drills and/or fracks in the Genesee, Lapeer, Sanilac, and St. Clair county areas along the pipeline’s routes, residential water wells will go bad and become contaminated, forcing residents to tie in (buy in) to the new Karegnondi water system, making them rate-paying water customers.

Monetizing water for people who currently get their water from groundwater wells is perhaps part of the business plan behind Karegnondi. Michigan has more private groundwater drinking wells providing water to residents and municipalities than any other state. The more the frackers can have access to that water, pushing more and more people off the groundwater supply and onto privatized or monetized sources, the better for the oil and gas industry, and the much worse for the public.

Download the Karegnondi pipeline map pdf.

The state’s role in oil and gas development 

Most people think the DEQ “does its job” by protecting human health and the environment, and resources like water, above all else. Not so with oil and gas. The Oil, Gas and Minerals Division of the DEQ is in charge of oil and gas development in the state, and issues permits for frack wells. Michigan DEQ is required by state law to

“foster the development of the [gas and oil] industry along the most favorable conditions, with a view to the ultimate recovery of the maximum production of these natural products.” (MCL 324.61502)

“Drill, baby, drill” is written right into the law. This must change. It’s been there since 1939. The Committee to Ban Fracking in Michigan has written a ballot initiative to change this statute, ban fracking and frack wastes, and ban acidizing in horizontal well bores.

The state has a deeper, darker “role”: It also makes money from the production of oil and gas. In effect, the state is a business partner with the oil and gas industry, even though, it’s supposed to be regulating it. In this case, “regulating” means giving them every opportunity to extract fossil fuels and make a profit.

It’s more insidious than that. Much like the lead industry waged a campaign to outfit the nation’s infrastructure with their deadly lead pipes (see: The Lead Industry and Lead Water Pipes: A “Modest Campaign”) we see these same devices being used today by the oil and gas industry to install their deadly infrastructure of natural gas plants, frack wells, compressor stations, toxic injection wells, and pipelines.

And the DEQ is right there with industry, promoting it, and mouthing the same propaganda. Brad Wurfel, the disgraced former DEQ spokesperson who recently resigned for his despicable role in the #FlintWaterCrisis (and who said “anyone who is concerned about lead in the drinking water in Flint can relax”) has repeated frack industry talking points like “new fracking technology is a potential game changer for this country.” He also said: “The state’s regulatory program is regarded nationally as one of the toughest — a safe, effective way to allow domestic energy production while protecting the land, air and water.” An interview by the Rockford Squire with DEQ’s Wurfel reads like an ANGA (American Natural Gas Association) commercial, while putting down residents sounding the alarm about the harms of fracking.

Fracking and drilling planned for Genesee, Lapeer, Sanilac, and St. Clair Counties

There are plans for fracking and other drilling activity in Genesee, Lapeer, Sanilac, and St. Clair counties. There are already four “high volume, hydraulically fractured,” frack wells (those using over 100,000 gallons of water per well) in Sanilac County: the Schultz, Walker, State Wheatland & Reinelt, and Van Damme wells, all targeting the A-1 Carbonate formation.  (See current map of DEQ wells).

The State auctioned off state-owned mineral rights to acres throughout the area, with 200 acres auctioned in Genesee county near Holloway Regional Park.  In 2013 land men from Western Land Services combed the area meeting with landowners, buying their mineral rights. Local residents organized in opposition, with Oregon and Richfield Townships in Lapeer County passing resolutions against fracking. And large gas storage fields (like the Porter Ranch, California storage well that is leaking massive amounts of methane) are located in St. Clair County.

The frackers sometimes do purchase municipal water

It’s possible that municipal water from Karegnondi could be used in the future for fracking. The frackers have certainly purchased water from municipalities in the past when groundwater supplies became scare or insufficient. With the Westerman frack well in Kalkaska County the frackers ran out of groundwater, bought public water from the nearby municipality, and when that wasn’t enough for the frack job, resorted to drilling 8 more water wells on site.

The city of Saline, in Washtenaw County, was selling municipal water for oil and gas drilling in 2012 until residents rose up and stopped it, and the city imposed a moratorium on further water sales. As Saline resident and business owner Mitch Rohde, opposing the use of municipal water for drilling, said at the time,

“I can say that my company is here to stay, and isn’t here to suck non-renewal resources out of the ground, profit, and in a locust-like manner move on, leaving a path of industrialization, potential contaminant, property devaluation and other issues while lining up the next small town to feed on.”

The frack industry uses ground water for free. A lot of it.

Water well drilled on the site of the Mancelona 1-28 HD1 horizontal frack well, on state forest land. The frackers use public groundwater for free.

Water well drilled on the site of the Mancelona 1-28 HD1 horizontal frack well, on state forest land. The frackers use public groundwater for free. Photo by LuAnne Kozma.

Generally, though, the frack industry uses ground water from temporary water wells they drill on the site of the well pad (see above photo). If the frack well is on state land, that means the frackers use this publicly-owned resource for free, and use as much as they want. The hokey, much criticized “water withdrawal assessment tool” (WWAT) is used by the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality as a guise to make it appear they’ve considered the quantity of water being removed from the ground. In fact, it does no such thing, records no cumulative records of how much water is removed from the aquifers below, and studies no impacts.

And when a frack well applicant fails the WWAT, the DEQ staff simply visit the site, and then rubber stamp the approval anyway. One well, which failed the WWAT, used over 21 million gallons of water. (See: Michigan’s 21 Million Gallon Frack Job and Michigan Gas Wells Surpassing All Water Records,  Governor-approved Frack Panel Unconcerned).

The frack industry, if it does all the drilling it wants to, will thirst after Michigan water. One estimate from 2013 was if Encana (now sold to Marathon) drilled the 500 wells they projected, the company would use and destroy 4 billion gallons of groundwater, about what Traverse City uses in two years.

The DEQ keeps this list of the water amounts used by the industry’s recent “high volume hydraulically fractured” wells.

The millions of gallons of fresh water used for fracking are no longer “water” after it is combined with millions of gallons of chemicals, many of them neurotoxins and cancer-causing. These millions of gallons are permanently taken from the water cycle. To frack, the toxic cocktail is injected underground using extreme pressure to break up the rock formation (or in the case of acidizing, dissolve the rock). What comes back out of the well is even worse, and usually radioactive. These liquid wastes (the industry and DEQ like to call this toxic waste “flowback” and “produced water”) are then put into injection wells and again re-injected deep into the earth’s formations, to be buried supposedly forever. But well casings fail, as researchers and industry itself have studied, allowing these toxins to enter and poison aquifers. (See ProPublica’s reporting “Injection Wells: The Poison Beneath Us.”)

Governor Rick Snyder says “in Michigan we do fracking right”

Governor Snyder said in a televised debate, “in Michigan we do fracking right” and “we work with industry….” And now you know why the DEQ works with industry to contaminate Michigan with toxic chemicals, toxified water, and frack wastes from other states. With the world now watching Michigan’s governor, his emergency manager-based autocracy, his words and actions in the #FlintWaterCrisis, the Detroit Public School takeover, and the frack industry invasion, Michiganders and others are now seeing through this flim flam.

For more information about the harms of fracking and the ballot initiative to ban fracking and frack wastes statewide, see the Committee to Ban Fracking in Michigan’s brochure. The Committee is collecting signatures before June 1 to get the ban on fracking and frack wastes on the ballot this November.

Pipeline secrecy: the poster child

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By Ellis Boal

On May 5, twelve members of the Michigan House introduced a pipeline secrecy bill, HB 4540. The bill would amend Michigan’s Freedom of Information Act, or FOIA law.

Before-and-after pictures of clearing for the pipeline along King Road, taken by neighbor Gary Cooley. Cooley found flattened Kirtland’s warblers in excavated dirt on the day and near the location of the third picture. Click and then click again to enlarge.

It would allow public agencies to withhold “critical energy infrastructure” information — defined as “engineering … or detailed design information” which “relates details about the production, generation, transportation, transmission, or distribution of fuel or energy” of “existing and proposed” infrastructure “relating to crude oil, petroleum, electricity, or natural gas.”

The definition is limited to information that is “more than the general location,” and that “could be useful to a person in planning an attack” on systems and assets, the incapacity of which “would negatively affect public security, economic security, health, safety….”

Both proponents and opponents have focused on oil and gas pipelines and high-powered electrical lines as the critical energy infrastructure which the bill targets. But in ordinary discourse the term also includes oil and gas production.

In the future as wind and solar begin to take hold in the state, central production and transmission facilities related to them would seem to be included too.

(The bill also has provisions related to cybersecurity generally, not limited to oil, gas and electricity. They have not sparked widespread controversy.)

If the bill were amended to exclude production, the primary agency affected by it would be the Michigan Public Service Commission (MPSC) which regulates transmission of oil, petroleum, electricity, and gas.

What follows is an object lesson, where secrecy of gas pipelines proved disastrous for Michigan forests and wildlife.

Secret pipelines

To build a gas line, a company has to give MPSC a plat showing the line’s dimensions, character, compression stations, control valves, and connections. Similar details are required for oil, petroleum, or electric lines.

In January 2013 deep-shale fracker Encana Oil & Gas (USA) applied for and MPSC permitted gathering lines for two horizontal wells. The lines were to connect the wells to a transmission line crossing southern Crawford and Kalkaska Counties.

This is Kirtland’s warbler territory. Kirtlands are federally endangered birds. If you kill one you pay a fine or go to jail or both.

Encana asked MPSC to process the applications “ex parte” — which means secretly. MPSC obliged. Neighbors near the lines had no chance to object. Twenty days later MPSC granted the applications in boilerplate decisions. Only then did the existence of the proposed lines became public.

Neighbors John Buggs, Dan Bonamie, and Gary Cooley live in inholdings of the state forest which the Crawford County line traverses. The line goes along King Road, what was once a stately woodland two-track. They and their neighbors walk, hunt, and bird throughout the area.

Encana had submitted environmental impact assessments (EIAs) to MPSC. But the EIAs were slopwork, supposedly authored by Encana’s surveyor but unsigned. His only enviro credential is a certificate to teach high school biology. The EIAs made no mention of the nearby Kirtland nesting sites, and did not even claim to investigate environmental impacts in the forest alongside the pipeline easements.

MPSC didn’t read the EIAs, saying that wasn’t its job. Buggs and Bonamie tried to intervene and ask for reconsideration, but the agency refused, holding they lacked standing.

In the court

The two appealed to the court of appeals, where Encana argued again they lacked standing.

Meanwhile the company spent $2 million and built the lines, flattening two Kirtland’s warblers in the process, according to witness Cooley’s affidavits. Cooley reported the find to two Encana contractor employees who refused to even look at the dead birds or report the incident to DNR as required.

Cooley also took before-and-after pictures of the one line which goes by his place. DNR had allowed easement widths of 35 feet, but the company used 53 feet including an 8-foot strip of roadside trees along King Road outside the easement boundary.

The court was shocked by Encana’s standing argument. It told the company that dismissing the appeal “may result in a miscarriage of justice.” It added environmental review is the job of every agency, under longstanding Michigan precedent. It reversed the MPSC permits as “unlawful,” and remanded to the agency.

Meanwhile Encana had sold the lines to DTE Michigan and the wells to Marathon Oil.

Back at MPSC

DTE then told MPSC it should now read the EIAs and re-affirm the permits summarily with no hearing.

Getting some backbone for a change, MPSC refused. The EIAs were “mere guesswork,” it ruled. Then it gave DTE till August to try to show the “efforts [it] made and resources [it] used” to produce the EIAs.

MPSC did not ask DTE to submit new EIAs by someone who does have credentials. Any new EIA — after Encana already gouged the forest — would be untimely by 2½ years and objectionable.

Recognizing the “interest” the case has generated, MPSC issued a press release and will allow public comment for 30 days after DTE’s submission in August.

Technical details

Pleadings and decisions in the case are at this link. The technical details provided by Encana when it applied for the lines is in items 1 and 2 of the link. The details include pipe specs and diameters, wall thickness, minimum yield, joint information, coating information, fitting information, maximum and normal pressures, max/min/expected operating temperatures, and other data.

In particular the details showed the line diameters would be 6.625 inches (commonly referred to as 6-inch).

This is the kind of detail which MPSC would be privileged to withhold under HB 4540. Are such details important to Buggs’s and Bonamie’s case?

This is where it gets interesting.

After the court decision, DTE did not remove the lines. It didn’t even stop operating them. Today it is making money off them. But the law provides for fines and a year of prison for corporate officers who have or operate a line without a permit. Here we have two lines and no permits.

Buggs and Bonamie began to question DNR about the 35-foot easements over which the lines run. The width of the easement determines how wide a forest swath can be excavated and cleared for a line. DNR procedure, in effect since 2005, recommends widths of 20 feet or 30 feet.

So why did DNR allow 35 feet for these lines?

And why did it allow taking of the 8-foot strip in violation of its 1994 policy that roadside trees make a “significant contribution to the natural beauty of the surrounding area”?

A DNR employee questions

DNR land use forester Jerry Grieve handled Encana’s application for one of the two lines. He questioned superiors about the width in the fall of 2012. Encana had requested 50 feet for that line. Grieve wrote:

Note: This requested easement is for 50′ not the normal 20′. This is because of the kind of pipeline being put down…. [D]iscussions about the width … are still on going in the Department. A final determination of width will be made by the time the easement is issued in Lansing.

FOIA information shows that in the case of this line, DNR did comply with the normal procedure — in writing — and allowed just 20 feet. But when Encana started excavating and clearing it went out 35 feet. DNR’s reaction: It just winked. In the case of the other line, the written permission stated 35 feet.

No FOIA notes of the DNR decisions show why it deviated from “normal” 20 feet.

But there are clues suggesting possible explanations. One is that the company overstated the line diameters. It told MPSC they would be 6 inches and DNR they would be 8 inches. Companies are supposed to be straight with public authorities. But neither MPSC or DNR have demanded an explanation of the contradiction. DNR fell for it and may have used the exaggerated diameters as an excuse for too-wide easements.

The second clue may be that something in the technical specs — perhaps the steel construction material or the expected pressure — motivated the deviation.

If this information caused DNR to violate its longstanding “normal” procedure, then the public is entitled to know. The width issue goes to the core of the DNR’s mission. Its job is to protect state forests from fragmentation, not violate rules secretly just because a powerful company wants it to.

But it is exactly the kind of data which MPSC and DNR could withhold under HB 4540, by simply declaring terrorists might use it.

In May, Buggs and Bonamie sued DNR in the court of claims to vacate the easements and restore the slashed forest. DNR has not yet responded.

Regardless how the new suit turns out, HB 4540 will allow MPSC and DNR to continue hiding information, and eating out of the hands of the frackers.

Adrian Today reported on May 10 that a search of campaign finance records shows that all the bill’s 12 sponsors received financial support from the energy industry in 2014.

 


 

The litigations are supported by Ban Michigan Fracking.