Enbridge finds unlikely friend in conservationists

By Dawson Bell

Detroit Free Press

GRAYLING, Mich. (AP) -- The Anglers of the Au Sable aren't what you'd call a go-along, get-along gang.

Dedicated to protecting the Au Sable River and its watershed, the 700-member organization has, at various times in its 25-year history, vilified politicians, shamed bureaucrats and sued the pants off those they perceived as threats to the river.

So in the latter half of 2010 -- when awareness began to spread through the Anglers' ranks that Enbridge Energy Partners, the company responsible for the 800,000 gallon oil spill in the Kalamazoo River that July, had another aging pipeline handling up to 22 million gallons a day that crossed under their beloved trout stream near Luzerne -- you might have expected things to get prickly.

But they didn't.

Instead, through a series of meetings and discussions between Enbridge officials and leaders of the Anglers, a somewhat unorthodox partnership was born. One which has resulted in the company installing a remote-controlled shut-off valve at a cost of $300,000-$500,000 on the south side of the river, visits to Grayling by Enbridge CEO Patrick Daniel and surprising praise for Big Oil from hard-line conservationists.

"When we began to consider the potential of an oil spill in the Au Sable ... it was horrific," Anglers President Bruce Pregler said last week.

"But (the pipeline) has been there for 60 years. We decided we needed to reach out to them and express our concerns," Pregler said. "The whole point ... was not to be adversarial. We wanted to make sure they understood what kind of resource this is."

John Bebow, the group's second vice president and head of the Center for Michigan think tank, said the Anglers realized early on that they weren't going to get the pipeline shut down.

But they did want to know more about it, and what assurance Enbridge could provide that the 2010 disaster in southern Michigan would not be happen again.

While the Enbridge pipeline that snakes under the Au Sable was not exactly a secret in the north woods, Bebow said it wasn't well known, either.

A few yards upstream from the Parmalee Bridge, "it's marked as a pipeline," he said, "but it's not marked as an oil pipeline that is 3 feet around and handles millions of gallons of crude every day."

Bebow said that realization quickly developed into a desire to speak to Enbridge.

While still in the middle of dealing with the Kalamazoo River crisis, Daniel, Houston-based public affairs officer Larry Springer and other company officials agreed to sit down with the Anglers.

In October 2010, they met at Gates Au Sable Lodge outside of Grayling, a sort of headquarters for the Anglers and a clearinghouse for their annual fall river cleanup.

Springer said Enbridge was eager to connect. The company regularly tries to interact with the communities through which its pipelines pass. That usually means local elected officials and emergency responders. But Enbridge interacts with other groups, too, Springer said, including environmentalists who loathe oil.

The Anglers, however, "didn't want to just talk," said Springer, "they wanted to be involved" in addressing safety concerns.

In the months that followed, the discussions led to Pregler and other Anglers participating in disaster training with the company and local first responders, including a drill on the river itself last fall.

Concerns raised by the Anglers also contributed to Enbridge's decision to install an expensive shut-off valve near the south riverbank, replacing a manually controlled valve with one that can be operated almost instantaneously when a problem is detected from the company's operations center in Edmonton, Alberta.

Two years after the Kalamazoo River spill, and in the same week a federal report excoriated Enbridge for its failures to prevent and respond quickly enough to that spill, relations between the company and the Au Sable's defenders appear pretty rosy.

It probably didn't hurt that both Springer and his boss, Daniel, are fly fishermen themselves. Springer even floated the river and caught a few trout.

In recent years, the Anglers mounted legal challenges to oil and gas projects they perceived as threats to the river and its natural surroundings. One was decided by the Michigan Supreme Court-- and in the group's favor.

But Pregler, a Troy-based attorney, said: "We don't want to file lawsuits. They're expensive. They take forever. We're just this humble little fishing club from Grayling."

"But we'll do what we need to do to protect that watershed."

Springer said the company is fine with that approach. The Anglers have had "great ideas. And they've been very open and willing to share their ideas. We're more than satisfied."

In the end, whatever their reasons, they have the same goal, Springer said.

"The No. 1 thing we're doing is trying to make sure we keep the oil in the pipeline."

Published: Tue, Aug 21, 2012