‘I can’t trust them anymore’: Residents of Fort Atkinson shocked that 2019 petroleum spill by Enbridge went unreported for over a year

Enbridge Inc.'s Superior terminal in Superior, Wis.

Community members near the site of a 2019 pipeline leak are questioning why the Canadian oil company in charge of the line didn’t notify them sooner. 

Enbridge Energy waited more than a year to notify the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources of a spill on one of its pipelines running through south-central Wisconsin, leaving residents wondering if their wells could be impacted by petroleum products. 

Line 13, also known as the Southern Lights Pipeline, starts in Manhattan, Ill., and runs through Wisconsin and Minnesota, delivering products to Enbridge’s Edmonton terminal in Alberta, Canada, according to the company’s website. The line transports 180,000 barrels per day of petroleum diluent, which is used to dilute heavy oils for easier transportation. 

The spill took place in Fort Atkinson, on Blackhawk Island Road near the Rock River and Lake Koshkonong. 

According to a report from Enbridge, a whistle alarm alerted the company to the leak on April 26, 2019. After that, samples were collected from around the site to determine where the leak was coming from. It wasn’t until May 17 that the leak was identified as coming from a faulty elbow joint and stopped. The valve was replaced on June 2. 

RELATED: ‘It could rise to the level of Standing Rock’: Wisconsinites push back against oil pipeline reroute

The company continued to excavate the site and test soil and nearby wells for contamination, but the leak was not reported to the DNR until July 31, 2020, over a year after the spill occurred. In November, the company reached the conclusion that 29 to 33 barrels of diluent were released into the ground. 

Trevor Nobile, a field operations director for the DNR, said that while agency rules ask companies to report spills right away, it’s not uncommon for there to be a delay in reporting until more is known. But, he said, Enbridge has been proactive about meeting with the agency and keeping up with testing and remediation of the site. 

“They have a robust plan as far as the investigation and remediation completed to date,” he said. 

Residents worry about impact of spill

The Jefferson County Board Law Enforcement and Emergency Management Committee got an update from Enbridge employees last week and listened to public comment from residents concerned for their health. 

Kenneth Pundsack, who lives less than half a mile from the site of the spill, said he’s worried not only about himself, but his neighbors and their farm animals. 

“What are we to do about our wells? I would think Enbridge would be advisable to have us test our water to ensure that our wells are safe and sound,” he said via Zoom during the meeting. 

Another nearby resident, Victoria Hachtel, said she was angry and frustrated with the way the company failed to notify people. 

“I’ve lived here for 22 years and I have always felt that Enbridge was a good neighbor,” Hachtel said during the meeting. “At this point, when we found out this late in the game, I can’t trust them anymore. And I don’t know exactly at this point which direction we have to take because anything that comes out of their mouth at this point is not truthful… I am very disgusted and hurt by the way they’ve treated us.” 

The company is going to continue remediation efforts at the site, said Juli Kellner, a communications staff member for Enbridge, and said the company will continue to work with landowners impacted by the spill. 

“The safety of local residents and the environment is our main focus,” she said in an email to the Journal Sentinel. 

Environmental groups expressed worry over the spill, as well as the amount of time the company took to notify the state. 

“The Jefferson County spill on Line 13 shows the threat Enbridge pipelines pose to water in Wisconsin,” said Tony Wilkin Gibart, the executive director of Midwest Environmental Advocates.

RELATED:Canadian oil company withdraws application to condemn property for pipeline reroute in northern Wisconsin

The spill isn’t the only time the company has drawn concern from communities. 

The company’s past efforts to use aggressive measures to obtain land to expand pipelines have drawn opposition.

In 2015, Enbridge successfully lobbied Wisconsin Republicans to change the state’s eminent domain law to make it easier for the company to turn to the government to force property owners to allow construction crews to bury new pipes across their land, despite traditional Republican support for private property laws.

The company tried to use those powers in its efforts to reroute another of its pipelines — Line 5, around the reservation of the Bad River Band of the Lake Superior Chippewa after the easements on which the pipeline resides expired. Embridge eventually decided to use another route where property owners voluntarily sold easements to the company. 

Line 5 was also in the news after damage to the pipeline was discovered in the Straits of Mackinac, which connects Lake Huron and Lake Michigan. A judge in 2020 ordered that the company stop the flow of oil in the pipe, but later allowed Enbridge to resume. 

Wilkin Gibart also pointed to Line 5 as an example of the risk Enbridge’s operations pose in Wisconsin.  

“Line 5 in northern Wisconsin has spilled more than a million gallons of oil since it was first built,” Wilkin Gibart said.

Laura Schulte can be reached at leschulte@jrn.com and on Twitter at @SchulteLaura