Editor’s note: Updated on May 16 with response from Energy Transfer Partners.
Ohioans are experiencing a little taste of Standing Rock, right at home. Energy Transfer Partners (ETP), the Texas company behind the Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL) project in North Dakota, has spilled about two million of gallons of drilling materials in two separate accidents into two of Ohio’s few remaining wetlands in a rush to complete its Rover natural gas pipeline.
The accidents occurred on April 13 and 14 as workers employed the same drilling technique used to bore beneath the Missouri River to place pipeline for the DAPL. According to the Ohio Environmental Protection Agency, the spill covered about 500,000 square feet and was caused by pressure during drilling. Incidents such as these are what fuel pipeline resistance, as environmentalists and tribal members pointed out.
“Energy Transfer Partners has dumped millions of gallons of a milkshake-like substance into pristine wetlands,” said Jenn Miller, director of the Sierra Club of Ohio. “This will have massive impacts on the plant, fish and amphibian species there.”
One-third of Ohio’s endangered species rely on wetlands for habitat and survival, Miller said.
The company’s promise of jobs, as reported in the Wheeling, West Virginia Intelligencer, has earned support for the pipeline from many people in traditionally conservative Ohio, where more than 112,000 workers lost manufacturing jobs in 2015, according to the Cleveland Plain Dealer. Some citizens, however, are rallying against the potential dangers of having a high-pressure gas pipeline run through their backyards. This new awareness, according to environmental and indigenous leaders, is based in part on the events in Standing Rock.
Public and tribal objections to the DAPL project near the Standing Rock Reservation spurred an unprecedented global social movement resisting the pipeline and its emblematic reliance on fossil fuels. From April 2016 through February 2017, people occupied camps near the construction site in support of Standing Rock Sioux opposition to the pipeline’s routing a half-mile from the reservation.
Joy Braun, Cheyenne River Lakota, of the Indigenous Environmental Network and one of the principal organizers of the water protector camps, said the intent at Standing Rock was always for people to spread the message “Water Is Life” beyond North Dakota.
“We wanted them to take the Mni Wiconi cry home with them,” she said, adding that the Ohio accident underscores ETP’s lack of concern for the environment. “ETP is once again showing its true colors and is a danger not only to people but also to one of the last remaining wetlands in Ohio.”
The spilled drilling fluid is designed to keep the pipeline in place as workers bore under waterways; the thick fluid or mud is composed mainly of bentonite, which is nontoxic but can smother plants and wildlife such as fish and invertebrates.
The similarities between ETP’s perceived attitude toward the environment and community safety in both North Dakota and Ohio was not lost on Guy Jones, Hunkpapa Lakota from the Standing Rock Reservation. Jones, a longtime Native advocate, lives in Dayton, Ohio.
“The events at Standing Rock helped build public awareness about the corporate power behind pipelines that often disregards community and environmental safety,” he said. “Homeowners and citizens throughout the state are contacting us [at the Sierra Club Ohio] with concerns about impact of the pipeline on their land and water.”
Ohio EPA has stated it will consider fines after ETP has completed its cleanup efforts. The company faces potential fines of up to $10,000 per day for each violation. On May 4 the agency levied $431,000 against ETP for a variety of Rover-related incidents across the state, according to The Columbus Dispatch. In addition the federal government has forbidden ETP to begin horizontal drilling in eight spots throughout the state because of the spill and a total of 18 leaks, The Washington Post reported on May 10. ETP disagreed with Ohio’s assessment.
“We have placed a great deal of focus and importance on our construction and mitigation efforts,” a spokesperson told Thinkprogress.org in an e-mailed statement. “We are not out of compliance with any of our permits. It is unfortunate that the Ohio EPA has misrepresented the situation and misstated facts in its recent comments.”
The 710-mile, high-pressure natural gas pipeline will transport fracked gas from the vast Appalachian Marcellus and Utica shale formations in West Virginia, Pennsylvania and Ohio to an interconnection site in Defiance, Ohio before crossing into Michigan, where it ends, according to a company fact sheet.
The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) approved the project in February 2017. Since then, ETP has been rushing to meet their stated deadline to have the pipeline in service to Defiance, Ohio by July 2017.
Pipeline construction has surged due to demand from natural gas producers in the Marcellus and Utica shale regions who have lost profit due to slumps in prices and inadequate pipeline infrastructure, according to Bloomberg BNA. The FERC may have been rushing pipeline approvals because now the agency must wait until at least one more commissioner is appointed in order to have a voting quorum. The FERC lost its permit approval power on February 3 after the resignation of Commissioner Norman Bay.
In meeting its scheduling goals, ETP is making extensive use of eminent domain to clear a path for the pipeline. There are so many defendants among Ohio landowners alone that the first 258 pages of the ETP’s eminent domain lawsuit filing is devoted to identifying them, according to The Intelligencer. Landowner Larry Helmick is one of them.
“I support natural gas. I support workers. I support America,” Helmick told The Intelligencer. “Why can they not figure out a better way to do this than to just run over people?”
Sheila and Stanley Bittinger of Harrison County, Ohio, also named as plaintiffs, have erected a blockade in an attempt to prevent ETP’s machinery from crossing their land. The pipeline surrounds the Bittinger home. They are concerned and thinking of moving.
“Safety is a big concern,” Sheila Bittinger told WTOV News 9 of Steubenville, Ohio. “I mean, the one that went off in Texas or whatever was seen and felt for like a hundred miles.”
The lack of trust underlies the objections, noted Miller of the Sierra Club.
“Construction just began a few weeks ago, yet Energy Transfer has spilled more than two million gallons of drilling fluids in two separate disasters, confirming our worst fears about this dangerous pipeline before it has even gone into operation,” Miller said. “We’ve always said that it’s never a question of whether a pipeline accident will occur, but rather a question of when. These disasters prove that the fossil fuel industry is unable to even put a pipeline into use before it spills dangerous chemicals into our precious waterways and recreation areas.”
The federal approval of the Rover pipeline reflects a dual national trend: continued reliance on fossil fuels, and the striking down of regulations against fracking public lands, according to Heather Taylor-Miesle of the Ohio Environmental Council, an organization dedicated to helping individuals, communities, and businesses “go green,” as its website says.
Long before Standing Rock, Ohio played an important role in drawing the nation’s attention to unbridled corporate exploitation and misuse of the environment when the Cuyahoga River near Cleveland caught fire in 1969, Taylor-Miesle told Teen Vogue in an April 2017 story. She described the potentially dangerous impacts of natural gas fracking in Ohio, including chemical spills, explosions, earthquakes and poisoned water.
Fracking in Ohio presents a challenge for people to let their elected officials know they care about what happens to the land, Taylor Miesle said—a role akin to that of the protests at Standing Rock.
“I’ve been saying for a long time that Standing Rock is more than a place,” said tribal member Jones. “It is a spiritual awakening for people to care for our land and our water.”