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The Planet

Coalition Sends Pipeline Contractor Walking

A Major Frac-up: "Frac-outs" like the one above spewed more than 40,000 gallons of drilling lubricants and muds into Rock Creek, a salmon spawning stream.

By Tom Valtin

Construction of a problem-plagued natural gas pipeline in southern Oregon was halted this spring by the Coos County commissioners, who fired the contractor for the project. The move to fire MasTec, Inc. came on the heels of a Sierra Club lawsuit and growing citizen opposition to environmental damage occuring on the project. A new contractor, Rockford Construction, was subsequently hired to finish the pipeline, which is now 90 percent complete. Environmental remediation is set to start in late June.

"This is a major success story for the chapter," says Oregon activist Jerry Sutherland. "It was a huge cooperative effort between the Sierra Club, labor unions, and rural residents. We even had loggers on board with us."

Chapter Conservation Chair Brent Foster, a Portland attorney, says MasTec failed to implement even the most basic environmental protections. "They acted as though they were cowboys," he says, "bulldozing through wetlands and spewing drilling fluid into streams." When Foster learned at a chapter meeting last fall of the damage MasTec was doing, he immediately headed to Coos County to take a look for himself.

"It was a mess," he says. "There was a blowout on the North Fork Coquille River. Grasses and vegetation protecting waterways from mud flows were being wiped out. The ground had fractured while drilling underneath stream beds, causing ‘frac-outs’ where drilling lubricants oozed into at least five streams."

The lawsuit, filed by Foster on behalf of the Sierra Club, the Klamath-Siskiyou Wildlands Project, and the newly formed Coos County Coalition, alleged that frac-outs had occurred for at least 157 days of the project, and it called on MasTec and Coos County to immediately address water pollution problems due to erosion. In April, bowing to growing public outrcy as well as the lawsuit, the county halted construction and terminated MasTec’s contract.

Randy Knop, a Plumbers and Pipefitters Union representative who co-founded the Coos County Coalition last July and served as its first president, says the county was sold a bill of goods. "MasTec has a horrible record on environmental compliance, " he says, "and they were inexperienced. It’s a very technical process to drill under streams, and they weren’t prepared when things went wrong. Workers were betting who could cross streams the fastest, and other stuff you don’t even want to hear about. They were giving the pipeline industry and pipeline workers a bad name and they needed to be held accountable."

Chapter Conservation Committee member Polyanna Lind, a clean water specialist in Eugene who helped spur the Club’s involvement, grew up in Lookingglass Valley, where the pipeline goes through. "It cuts across the valley like a knife slicing through a perfectly decorated wedding cake," she says. "Farmers who’d been assured construction would be done sensitively were angry when it wasn’t, and fishermen were angry about mud and drilling fluid spilling into salmon streams."

That’s when the chapter dove in. Knop says MasTec would still be on the job if it weren’t for the Sierra Club. Lind believes that the combination of people and interests who came together was key to getting the county to act. "Many of us would not have imagined being on the same side of an issue as the Sierra Club," says Del Knight, a former logger who is now president of the Coos County Coalition. "But this is about our water, and neither the county nor the state Department of Environmental Quality was willing to stand up to MasTec."

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