INDIANAPOLIS — The leader of an environmental group pushing for greater public scrutiny of Enbridge Inc.'s plans to replace 60 miles of crude oil pipeline in northern Indiana says the company's proposal highlights a need for Indiana to adopt a better public process for vetting such projects.
Nicole Barker, executive director of Save the Dunes, said the Michigan City-based group hopes to convince other advocacy groups this fall to push for changes in next year's legislative session to address those concerns and boost state regulatory oversight of pipeline projects.
"That's something we hope to address at the state level," Barker said. "There definitely needs to be far more requirements for public input."
Enbridge has multiple permit applications pending before Indiana agencies for its proposal to replace 60 miles of oil pipeline installed in 1969. The Canadian oil pipeline operator's project is part of its $1.8 billion, two-phase replacement of about 285 miles of pipeline in Indiana and Michigan.
Barker said the public needs to know more about the proposal in light of recent Enbridge oil pipeline spills, including a July 2010 pipeline rupture in southwestern Michigan that released 843,000 gallons of heavy crude that fouled waterways and wetlands.
A different Enbridge pipeline ruptured in Wisconsin in July, spilling about 50,400 gallons of crude into a pasture.
Barker said her not-for-profit group worries that a spill could someday occur along the proposed new Indiana pipeline near one of the rivers and streams it will cross that harbor trout and salmon populations. Such a spill could also impact the lakeside dune ecosystems her group focuses on protecting because most of those waterways flow into Lake Michigan.
"There's an immediate concern about protecting the lake, the drinking water and protecting the dunes as well," she said.
For its Indiana project, Enbridge wants to replace a four-decade-old, 30-inch pipeline its crews will empty, seal and leave in place.
Enbridge spokesman Joe Martucci said the new pipeline with a diameter of 36 inches will be able to handle a larger flow of crude oil to meet future demand by the refineries that are its customers.
He said Indiana's regulatory review of pipeline projects is "pretty rigorous" but Enbridge hopes to soon obtain all its needed permits and local easements.
"We would hope to complete the Indiana portion by the end of the year. That's the goal anyway," Martucci said.
To date, the only public meeting on the project has been a June open house in LaPorte that was mostly attended by property owners and where Enbridge provided handouts on the project, Barker said.
The first public hearing on the project will be held next Thursday by the state Department of Natural Resources in Valparaiso and focus on eight rivers and streams with trout or salmon populations the new pipelines will cross.
Barker said Save the Dunes sought that hearing to open public testimony on the project.
DNR spokesman Phil Bloom said next week's hearing won't be a discussion of the Enbridge project, but simply a chance for the public to raise any concerns they might have about the pipeline's possible impact on the waterways.
"This hearing isn't a give and take — our folks are there basically to collect statements from people," he said.
Two water permit applications for the pipeline project are pending before the Indiana Department of Environmental Management. No hearings on those applications are scheduled, but IDEM spokesman Amy Hartsock said the public can ask the agency to consider arranging one.
Barker said she's pleased Enbridge has agreed to give a formal presentation on all aspects of its pipeline project Sept. 6 to a subcommittee of the Northwest Indiana Regional Planning Commission in Portage.
Martucci said Enbridge wants to answer any lingering questions about the project that local environmental groups and business and government officials might have.
Although the Enbridge pipeline replacement involves a utility infrastructure, Indiana Utility Regulatory Commission spokeswoman Danielle McGrath said the panel does not have jurisdiction over such interstate pipeline projects.
She said Indiana law gives the IURC "a small role" that involves passing on project information from the company to affected landowners. McGrath said the IURC expects to receive project details and a list of landowners from Enbridge by late next week.