The summer turned out to be a busy one for Kelly Jacobs of Waterville, Ohio, and not just because she was raising two children. Back in March, the EPA held a hearing to discuss a proposed natural gas pipeline that would run through the township. After learning about the risks of the project, Jacobs became concerned. Over the next few months, she and her kids went door to door, bringing a clear message to her neighbors: If the pipeline was built, Waterville residents would bear the brunt of the risks and reap none of the benefits.
She wanted them to vote for a community bill of rights that would block the proposed pipeline and guarantee their right to clean air, water, and soil.
At issue was the NEXUS pipeline, a 255-mile transmission system that would bring fracked natural gas from eastern Ohio to southeastern Michigan. A project of Spectra Energy, a company based in Houston, the pipeline would run under the Maumee River and through several Waterville neighborhoods. The company also wants to build a compressor station there that would move gas along the pipeline.
“The [supporters of the pipeline had] way more money,” says Jacobs. “They tried to paint us as out-of-state radicals that are bad for business. When my kids and I went through all these different neighborhoods, we had people saying, You obviously aren’t from out of state. If you were, you’d have fancier signs.”
But Jacobs’ side scored a win on November 8, when residents passed the community bill of rights, amending the town’s charter. It’s an unconventional strategy, and it was not residents’ first choice. But, like many other cities and towns that have passed similar laws against extractive industries, they chose it as a last resort—and it just might work.
Concerned about the pipeline’s potential effects on air and water, residents appealed in March to local elected officials, who said it was up to state and federal agencies to approve or deny the project. Then they turned to the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) and the Ohio Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Finding little support at either, they finally enlisted the help of the Community Environmental Defense Fund (CELDF), a public interest law firm that advocates for local control over environmental issues. CELDF helped residents draft the new amendment, which, among other things, bans “the siting or operation of equipment to support extraction of hydrocarbons.”
Although it’s unclear how the community bill of rights will fare in court, it’s already having effects. A Waterville city employee told citizens in a November 14 council meeting—the first since the charter amendment was passed—that pipeline officials had sent a letter to the city requesting permission to survey. He said he’d declined permission because Waterville has a new law banning the pipeline.
Yet, a few weeks later, FERC moved the pipeline one step forward, saying that its effects on environmental systems will be “reduced to acceptable levels” by the company’s mitigation plan. CELDF expects the commission to formally issue a permit for the project in January, at which point the fight is expected to move to the courts.
The local law passed by 60 to 40 percent. Tish O’Dell, an organizer with CELDF, says that margin reveals the gap between the thinking of local people and the decisions reached by state and federal agencies.
While the EPA and FERC say the pipeline can be built safely, residents aren’t buying it.
Natural gas pipelines contain methane, a combustable gas that can seep out and contaminate water sources. And there doesn’t have to be an explosion or other major accident to trigger emissions: A study published in 2011 in the journal Climatic Change showed that 3.6 to 7.9 percent of unburned methane leaks out from pipeline infrastructure before reaching end users.
When accidents do take place, the results can be devastating. According to ProPublica, there have been 197 incidents with Ohio oil and gas pipelines since 1986. With causes ranging from corrosion to storm damage, these failures have caused 17 deaths and nearly 100 injuries.
Waterville residents were also concerned about the compressor station. These relay stations, usually spaced out every 30 to 70 miles along the length of a natural gas pipeline, can release “small amounts of hazardous air pollutants” such as benzene, formaldehyde, and toluene, according to the Ohio EPA. Most of the township’s schools are within 3 miles of the compressor station, says Jacobs.
The city’s new bill of rights hasn’t been tested in court yet, and it’s not clear whether it will be effective in stopping the pipeline. But for the many Waterville residents who expressed their opposition to the project and saw the state proceed to grant permits to NEXUS anyway, it’s an important legislative step.
“They’re worried about their health, safety, and welfare,” says O’Dell, “so now what you’ve got is the people of the community [passing] a law to protect themselves because they know the government is not going to protect them.”
“Even if you side with natural gas,” says Jacobs, “they shouldn’t be able to come and take land … if it doesn’t benefit the public. It’s not benefitting us at all. That’s the bigger picture.”