New Bill Attacks Your Right-to-Know

Tags: clean water, energy, FOIA, pipeline safety, pipelines, right to know, Straits of Mackinac

Corroded section of pipe that caused the Kalamazoo River Oil Spill

Earlier this year, Rep. Kurt Heise (R – Northville) introduced House Bill 4540 to amend Michigan’s Freedom of Information Act (FOIA). While the stated purpose of this amendment is “defending our critical energy infrastructure from attack,” its real impact would be in restricting Michiganders’ access to information regarding the integrity and safety of our energy infrastructure.

As written, the bill speaks in broad terms, defining critical energy infrastructure as energy systems and assets “the incapacity… of which would negatively affect public security, economic security, health, [or] safety”. Michigan stakeholders and landowners would be unable to access any information except “the general location of the critical infrastructure.” A broad array of information on pipelines and other energy and electricity generating infrastructure—including safety records, data on pipeline corrosion and leaks, condition of wells, and rate and outcome of inspections—would be removed from public access.

Transparency and public oversight have time and again proven critical to protecting our health and environment from potentially devastating failures of our energy infrastructure. “Right-to-Know” laws like Michigan’s Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) are designed to allow Michiganders to scrutinize the actions of their government and also hold energy companies accountable for the quality and maintenance of energy infrastructure that runs through Michigan communities. Disclosure lets those Michiganders who are most impacted by energy infrastructure, such as nearby landowners, have access to the information they need in order to know what’s happening in their own backyard. In effect, it allows Michiganders like you to proactively protect your family, your property, and your community.

Did you know that close to 70,000 miles of natural gas and hazardous liquid pipelines crisscross Michigan? Pipeline safety has been the subject of increasing public concern in Michigan since 2010, when a pipeline spilled more than one million gallons of oil into a tributary of the Kalamazoo River. Devastating spills like that one demonstrate just how important oversight of energy infrastructure is to ensure the safety of Michigan residents and our natural resources. Recently, attention has turned to a 62 year-old pipeline that transports nearly 23 million gallons of petroleum products under the Straits of Mackinac every day.

Perhaps even more concerning is that, almost no information on this aging pipeline has been made available to the public because of already existing exemptions to FOIA—leaving Michiganders in the dark on the potential threat it poses to our Great Lakes, important tourist destinations, fisheries, and local communities. If enacted, the sweeping exemption language in House Bill 4540 would go even further in cutting public access to even the most basic safety information—veiling information like the results of government inspections and reports of pipeline corrosion in secrecy.

House Bill 4540, as written, would reduce government transparency and place needed information out of reach for Michiganders and watchdogs alike. By continuing to protect the Freedom of Information Act, Michiganders can continue to hold our government and energy suppliers accountable for protecting our land, air and water before a disaster happens. But without tools like FOIA to give us access to information on the integrity and safety of our energy infrastructure, it is only a matter of time until the next spill devastates another pristine Michigan waterway.

Written by Michigan LCV Policy Intern, Trevor Dolan

Photo of ruptured section of pipeline that caused the Kalamazoo River Oil Spill courtesy of the National Transportation Safety Board