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Joe Sugiyama: Hold Enbridge accountable

BY JOE SUGIYAMA

Published September 6, 2010

When I was little, the only thing that could pull me out of my Power Ranger suit was my fishing gear. Since then my priorities have swung in a slightly more academic direction, but fishing still maintains a close second. That's why I was devastated to hear that the worst oil spill in the history of the Midwest occurred in my home state.

Late in July, a pipe belonging to Enbridge Energy Partners spewed out nearly one million gallons of oil into Michigan’s Kalamazoo River. Since the incident, Enbridge — under the supervision of the Environmental Protection Agency — has gone through painstaking efforts to rid the river of its slip-up.

Although the Kalamazoo River still remains uncharted territory to me, all Michigan rivers are similar in that they are without a doubt someone’s favorite place to fish, hunt, walk by or float down. I know for a fact if Enbridge Energy had their little incident in one of my favorite rivers, I would be out for blood.

Now Enbridge is being hit financially by the EPA, which, under the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act, will hold Enbridge entirely financially responsible for the clean-up. They’re also being hit on Wall Street, where their stock plummeted — and hasn't since recovered — following the spill in the Kalamazoo River. But I feel that the fiscal damage done to the companies and those directly responsible for the disaster is not punishment enough. I feel that those who are really to blame, whether it be an inspector of a pipe or the president of the company — namely, Enbridge Energy CEO Patrick D. Daniel — should face the stark reality of going to trial with the risk of jail time.

You might be reading this and thinking how ridiculous it seems to imprison someone for an unintentional offense, but I believe that it’s warranted. Think about it this way: First degree murder, vehicular manslaughter and animal cruelty are all crimes punishable by time in prison. Although first degree murder is premeditated and vehicular manslaughter is unintentional, they each achieve the same final result. That’s why vehicular manslaughter is punishable by time in prison. No matter how you look at it, someone convicted of it caused the death of another person.

I propose that a similar line of logic be used with animal cruelty and the environmental devastation caused by Enbridge Energy, because no matter how you look at it, an entire ecosystem has been devastated and thousands of flora and fauna are now dead because of the negligence of Enbridge Energy.

Sound extreme? I completely agree that the limb I’m standing on is about to snap, but something must be done to stop these disasters from occurring. If there was some possibility of doing time for being negligent with the environment, you can bet that CEOs of oil companies — and plenty of other companies for that matter — would be a bit more adamant that their inspectors actually inspect closely and their operators operate diligently.

There have to be ultimatums concerning these disasters because our current system, which most of the time is no system at all, isn’t working. And when the nonexistent system breaks down, it’s not the CEOs and workers who are facing the consequences of their carelessness; it’s the 200-year-old white oak that chokes on the poisonous crude that’s saturated the earth, it’s the blackened Canadian goose and her chicks who struggle to paddle through a thick layer of sludge and it’s the little boy who’s fishing hole has now become a toxic dump.

If you’re not a fisherman or have never taken time to enjoy any of the great rivers of Michigan, you might still be struggling to invest fully in my proposal, but taking a 15-minute trip down Ann Arbor’s Huron River Drive will make my argument clear. These are places that must be protected from avoidable mistakes and we can prevent these mistakes by setting a precedent that puts culprits of these crimes against nature on trial and possibly in prison.

Joe Sugiyama can be reached at jmsugi@umich.edu.


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