Wisconsin Oil Pipeline Leak Went Unreported for Over a Year

Over 1,200 gallons of petroleum were spilled from an underground pipeline leak near Fort Atkinson, Wisconsin, in Spring of 2019, yet regulators were not notified for nearly a year and a half.

Workers for Enbridge Energy, the company that owns the pipeline, first noticed an odd smell during a routine visit to the site on April 26, 2019. A loose joint in the pipes was found on May 4, a temporary fix was made on May 17, and the pipe was permanently fixed a few weeks later. However, the spill went unreported to the Department of Natural Resources (DNR) until July 13 of 2020, more than one year later.

When Enbridge first informed the DNR, they stated that 1.35 gallons of diluent, a petroleum material used for thinning crude oil, had leaked into the soil. This estimate proved to be greatly inaccurate, as the amount was later reported to be 1,225 to 1,386 gallons. Toxic chemicals contaminated at least 130 tons of soil, affecting about 3.5 acres of farmland about half a mile from the Rock River.

Some of the leaked chemicals made their way into nearby groundwater. Testing in October of 2020 and January of 2021 revealed increasing levels of harmful chemicals in local groundwater: benzene tested at 4,000 times the state enforcement regulations, and toluene at 9 times the regulations. Trichloroethylene was also detected above permissible levels.

Toni Wilkin Gibart, the executive director of Midwest Environmental Advocates says the problem is bigger that just one spill or just one pipeline. “Line 5 in northern Wisconsin has spilled more than a million gallons of oil since it was first built,” Wilkin Gibart said in an interview with the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel

The water contamination is of particular concern to many Jefferson County residents. They had been drinking this water for a long period of time without any knowledge of the spill; they could have had their well water tested sooner if they had known. Enbridge, in an attempt to make up for its lack of transparency, has recently offered to perform water tests for any residents who want them.

The situation has resulted in a major loss of trust in Enbridge from the residents of Jefferson County. The way that Enbridge handled the situation appears to be more blameworthy than the leak itself. As one resident, Ronni Monroe, described it, “Fourteen hundred gallons isn’t a huge spill, but the behavior is reprehensible. I just think it should have been public knowledge. I don’t care if it’s four gallons.”

Jefferson County resident Victoria Hachtel also lives near the pipeline. During a public meeting about the incident, she said “I've lived here for 22 years and I have always felt that Enbridge was a good neighbor, At this point, when we found out this late in the game, I can't trust them anymore.”

A portion of the Enbridge Energy pipeline runs through eastern Dane County.

[Sources: Wisconsin State Journal; Milwaukee Journal Sentinel]

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