As a giant gas line inches closer to its day camp, the Ann Arbor Y goes into activist mode.
by Julie Halpert
From the August, 2017 issue
It's a muggy July morning, and a boisterous group of campers is being led in games by counselors at Ann Arbor YMCA's Camp Birkett. They're happily running from the playground to the basketball court in the middle of the serene woods along Silver Lake. Just up the dirt road, 300 feet from the playground, another scene is unfolding. Orange fencing creates a long border around land that's been cleared for a pipeline, while construction workers in hard hats walk the property.
YMCA leaders say they were never told that the ET Rover pipeline would pass so near the camp--they first heard about it from a neighbor after construction had already started. Concerned about potential dangers to young campers in the event of a leak or explosion, they went into activist mode to fight it.
Toni Kayumi, Ann Arbor YMCA president and CEO, acknowledges there is only a slim chance for an explosion. She also realizes that being so public about her concerns carries a risk that parents may be reluctant to send their children to Camp Birkett if the pipeline route isn't changed. But she felt it was important to protest: "We're putting the care of our children ahead of the potential impact on our annual budget," she said.
Since 1914, the YMCA has owned the ten-acre property that houses Camp Birkett. It's a day camp for children aged five through twelve. Roughly 110 children, along with twenty counselors, head to Camp Birkett during summer weeks. In 2016, one in five children received financial assistance to attend.
ET Rover is a forty-two-inch-diameter, 713-mile, $4.2 billion pipeline that will move gas fracked from the Marcellus Shale in Pennsylvania, West Virginia, and Ohio into the national pipeline system. The segment passing Camp Birkett will tie into to an existing pipeline to Canada. Owned by Energy Transfer Partners, the same company spearheading the Dakota Access pipeline, it engendered protests from some Washtenaw County residents three years ago when it was
Though construction began in February, Kayumi didn't know that it would pass close to her camp until June 6. That's when the Y's director of camping services, Charles Fahlsing, got an email from Wendy Zielen, who lives on Silver Lake.
Zielen says she hadn't been concerned about the pipeline either. She knew that the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission staff had endorsed a route along an existing power line right-of-way well away from her home and the YMCA camp. When she saw men with chainsaws clear-cutting the woods behind her house in early March, she thought they had made a mistake.
Investigating, she learned that in February, FERC had approved a "pipeline certificate" for ET Rover--but only partially on the route its staff had recommended. The changed section hugs Silver Lake, running close to the camp and about 100 homes.
Once Zielen and her neighbors realized what had happened, they filed a motion asking the commission to revoke the certificate and suspend construction of the pipeline. Soon after, Zielen emailed Fahlsing. "I said you need to be aware of this," she recalls.
The Y's reaction was immediate. "Our concerns are the fact that, should there be a pipeline emergency, there are only three access roads that exist, so evacuation and emergency response would be difficult," Kayumi says.
In its order granting the certificate, FERC acknowledged that commission staff, in their environmental impact statement, recommended building the pipeline along the power line corridor. But in September 2016, Rover had raised problems with part of that route--for one thing, the company said, it crossed an area where the soil had been contaminated by a plastics manufacturing facility.
The commissioners agreed. The route they approved in February 2017 starts along the power line corridor but then, to avoid the allegedly contaminated soils, detours around Silver Lake and passes near the camp. Clifford Rowley, a spokesman for Michigan Residents Against ET Rover Gas Pipeline, made up of homeowners impacted by the project, says the company never notified them about the change or the reason for it. He says there were other ways to avoid the contaminated soils, but the neighbors never got an opportunity to respond to the company's arguments. It's unclear whether ET Rover told FERC that the new route would run close to a children's camp.
Terry Lodge, an attorney representing Residents Against ET Rover, says the company was legally required to notify anyone along the route of the pipeline. But Kayumi says the YMCA, like the neighbors, was never contacted.
She says ET Rover's documents claim they reached out to "John Carson" of "Michigan YMCA"--but there is no Michigan YMCA, and no John Carson works for the Ann Arbor YMCA. "My feeling is that they're being deliberately deceptive," she says. "We were denied a fundamental notice required by federal law."
Adding to the Y's concern, Kayumi says, is the damage that ET Rover caused while constructing the pipeline in Ohio. The Ohio EPA proposed a total of $914,000 in civil penalties after the company spilled more than two million gallons of drilling mud in a wetlands area. Released during horizontal directional drilling, it was contaminated with diesel fuel and caused extensive environmental damage.
James Lee, a spokesman for the Ohio EPA, says Rover didn't formally respond to the notice of penalties, so the matter is now going to the state's attorney general. In the meantime, the Ohio EPA has ordered the company to address numerous environmental violations by revising and implementing a contingency plan to deal with environmental spills, and to submit a plan for removing the contaminated mud from the landfill and quarry where it was deposited. "Rover has been marching across Ohio with apparent disregard for Ohio's environment under the belief that the company was not obligated to follow Ohio's environmental laws," Lee says.
Vicki Granado, an ET Rover spokesperson, emails that the company has been in full compliance in Michigan and followed all the notification requirements set by FERC on the pipeline. She wouldn't indicate whether the company made clear to FERC that a children's camp would be close to the new route. The "route adjustments were made in cooperation with FERC during the planning process to avoid areas that would have a significant impact to the environment and to construct the pipeline with the smallest footprint possible," she writes, adding that it was planned and vetted for more than two years before construction began.
Peter Langley, executive director of the American Petroleum Institute of Michigan, isn't closely following the ET Rover pipeline, but he says that statistically "pipelines are the safest means of moving product from where it is to where it needs to go. Pipelines are 99.999 percent efficient in terms of getting product where it needs to go without incident."
But Kayumi points out that the gas in the pipeline will be odorless, so if it does spring a leak, neighbors may not know about it in time to evacuate. After Zielen alerted Kayumi to the route change, she sent an email to YMCA members with the subject line, "Request for Action!" It described the pipeline's potential dangers and asked members to submit comments to FERC, via a link to the FERC docket. A similar message was sent to parents of campers who are not YMCA members a couple of weeks later.
Kayumi says it was important to be transparent and also to mobilize support. "A lot of members are very concerned about safety in our community," she says. "This is the type of thing they would rally behind." FERC immediately was flooded with protests from concerned parents. "A pipeline near a YMCA camp? Really?," wrote Donna Vigilant of Ann Arbor. "Do we need to say how dangerous and unsuitable that is? Please do the right thing and suspend construction."
On July 7, the Ann Arbor YMCA and Michigan Residents Against the ET Rover Pipeline held a rally at the camp that drew more than 160 people, including two veterans of Standing Rock. The goal was to send a message to FERC to halt construction while the route is investigated to ensure the safety of the camp's children.
Rallying a spirited crowd, Kayumi pointed out that pipeline operators are forbidden from locating near a "high-consequence area" like a building or play area. Pointing to the playground and basketball courts, she shouted, "In many ways, we qualify as a high-consequence area. You cannot have a non-odorized gas pipeline next to a high-consequence area. That's the law." The crowd cheered.
In a phone interview after the rally, Kayumi explained that she's pushing for the company to at least add an odorant if the pipeline must proceed. That would allow a leak to be detected and campers evacuated before an explosion.
FERC is usually required to rule on petitions within thirty days. However, the commission needs a quorum of three commissioners to act, and its members are political appointees. At the request of the Trump administration, two commissioners stepped down after FERC approved ET Rover, leaving the four-person body with only one member. President Trump has submitted nominees for two of the vacancies, but they have yet to be approved by Congress. That's left the commission paralyzed. "All the appeals of the ET Rover case are shelved until we resume a quorum," says Tamara Young-Allen, a FERC spokeswoman.
Meanwhile, says Kayumi, the pipeline crews are getting "closer and closer" to Camp Birkett. Rowley says his anti-Rover group is pursuing mechanisms that FERC staff can act upon, including banning the type of horizontal drilling that caused the huge spill in Ohio. In May, FERC halted that type of drilling in Ohio; Rowley's group is asking that it also be stopped along part of the route in the Silver Lake area.
On July 10, the anti-Rover group asked the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality to issue a stop work order, arguing that the pipeline would seal off the lake's only drainage point and increase the risk of flooding. In an email response the same day, Matthew Konieczki, environmental quality analyst with the MDEQ Jackson District Water Resources Division, said it's not possible to stop work, but changes could be required after the pipeline is laid if it's deemed to be a problem.
On July 12, Michigan senators Gary Peters and Debbie Stabenow sent a letter to the acting FERC commissioner to urge a temporary halt to construction on the pipeline due to concerns about safety and "the integrity of the public review and comment period for this project." They argued that additional time to reconsider the route will ensure public safety.
Despite the many setbacks, Zielen says of ET Rover, "I'm still hoping they'll do the right thing." She also has the "highest regard" for how the YMCA has handled this.
If the pipeline can't be temporarily halted or rerouted soon, Kayumi said she'll push to prevent any gas from running through it. The YMCA will also perform a risk and liability assessment to determine how to evacuate campers in case of an emergency. It's possible they would purchase additional motorboats for a water evacuation, since the land routes would be blocked. "It would be an expensive outlay on our behalf," she says, but it's "something we'd look into doing to ensure the safety of our children, should there be a disaster," she said. Just as there are drills for tornadoes, active shooters, and fire, they'll also have drills and evacuation plans in the event of a pipeline emergency.
Gillian Miller, whose two daughters, ages seven and nine, were attending Camp Birkett in July, was at the protest and supports the YMCA's decision to speak out. A senior scientist at the Ecology Center, she calls relocating the pipeline away from the camp a "no-brainer."
While she has no concern about risk from pipeline construction this summer, she hasn't yet decided whether she'd send her kids next summer if the pipeline is built as planned. But the fact that the YMCA decided to speak out--"not every organization is willing to make such a public stand," she says--makes her optimistic that the YMCA will do everything it can to ensure everyone is safe if the pipeline goes through.
"We will be prepared," Kayumi says. "I believe parents will know we are doing everything we absolutely can to reduce risk."
[Originally published in August, 2017.]
On October 13, 2017, Paul Wohlfarth wrote:
Why not ask Comgressman Tim Walberg for a comment? What is the congressman doing for the camp? Cngressman Walberg has written letters to FERC in full support of both the Rover and Nexus pipelines while taking campaign contributions from them. Does he support his constituents in the 7th?
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