MARSHALL, Mo. -- A Canadian company's plan to build an oil pipeline that will stretch for hundreds of miles through the Midwest, including through many sensitive waterways, is quietly on the fast-track to approval -- just not the one you're thinking of.
As the Keystone XL pipeline remains mired in the national debate over environmental safety and climate change, another company, Enbridge Inc. of Calgary, Alberta, is hoping to begin construction early next month on a 600-mile-long pipeline that would carry tar sands from Flanagan, Ill., about 100 miles southwest of Chicago, to the company's terminal in Cushing, Okla. From there the company could move it through existing pipeline to Gulf Coast refineries.
The company is seeking an expedited permit review by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers for its Flanagan South pipeline, which would run parallel to another Enbridge route already in place. Unlike the Keystone project, which crosses an international border and requires State Department approval, the proposed pipeline has attracted little public attention -- including among property owners living near the planned route.
Enbridge says it wants to be a good neighbor to the communities the pipeline would pass through, and it has been touting the hundreds of short-term construction jobs it would create. The company also scheduled a series of "open houses" for this week in Missouri, Kansas and Illinois in which it invited the public to come discuss and learn about its plans.
A session Tuesday in Marshall, 90 miles east of Kansas City, drew a handful of Sierra Club protesters armed with fliers denouncing what's been called one of the country's costliest oil spills. It also attracted local politicians, concerned landowners and prospective pipefitters looking for work.
Enbridge responded with an array of free products, from tote bags and tape measures to cookies and key rings.
Wayne McReynolds, one of the 60 people who stopped by the open house in Marshall, said he hoped to learn more about the company's plans to prevent construction runoff from flooding valuable farmland. He said he left the event with only vague assurances, not specific answers.
"You never put the soil back in the trench to the same extent it was taken out," said McReynolds, a retired soil and conservation worker. "It can't be done."
Mike Diel of Macon, Mo., said he's had no luck getting Enbridge or the corps to give him specific details about the project, including a precise pipeline map and copies of emergency response plans.
"We're all worried about oil spills and the tar sands getting into the drinking water," Diel said.
"Until I know where the pipeline is going, how am I supposed to know what I'm supposed to be worried about?" he said.
Enbridge spokeswoman Katie Lange said fears about the pipeline's safety are overblown. She described routine aerial patrols of the pipeline and its seven pump stations and round-the-clock computer monitoring in Calgary that "can shut it down from just a touch of a button" if necessary.
"Once the pipeline is in the ground, there's a very rigorous and robust operations and maintenance program," Lange said.
But Sierra Club lawyer Doug Hayes said those assurances are insufficient, given recent history. A July 2010 rupture of an Enbridge pipeline in Michigan dumped an estimated 1 million gallons of the heavier diluted bitumen into the Kalamazoo River, a 35-mile portion of which remained closed to public access for two years. The U.S. Department of Transportation subsequently fined Enbridge $3.7 million.
More recently, an ExxonMobil pipeline spill in Mayflower, Ark., led to the evacuation of 22 homes and further scrutiny of the long-distance transportation of tar sands oil, a denser substance that is more difficult to clean up.
Lange confirmed that Enbridge is seeking regulatory approval under the Nationwide 12 permit process, which would mean the company wouldn't be obligated to follow more rigorous Clean Water Act requirements such as public notification or lengthy environmental reviews. Those permits are limited to utility projects in which each water crossing disrupts no more than one-half acre of wetlands. The Flanagan South pipeline would cross the Missouri and Mississippi rivers as well as hundreds of smaller tributaries.
"This is a 600-mile project that will clear everything in its path for a 100-foot right of way," Hayes said. "And they're treating it as thousands of separate, little projects."
The Sierra Club lawyer said the Army Corps rejected several Freedom of Information Act requests seeking more project details, citing an exemption for "deliberative process privilege" designed to protect internal decision-making.
TransCanada of Calgary is also seeking Nationwide 12 status for the Keystone XL project, prompting the Sierra Club to file suit alleging violations of the Clean Water Act and the National Environmental Policy Act. Hayes declined to discuss whether the environmental group also plans a legal challenge to the Flanagan South project.
A spokeswoman in the Army Corps' Kansas City office on Tuesday referred questions about the project's permit status to a regulatory colleague who did not respond.
In western Illinois, local officials eagerly anticipate Enbridge's arrival, said Kim Pierce, executive director of the Macomb Area Economic Development Commission. The company plans to build four pumping stations in the state, including one near Quincy along the Missouri border. In addition to the temporary construction jobs, the region can also expect a purchasing boost at area restaurants, hotels and in equipment sales, she said.
"Come Saturday at quitting time, we can expect a lot of people out, relaxing and purchasing things," she said. "We truly see this as an opportunity. You don't always get that handed to you."
Count Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon among the project's supporters. The two-term Democrat said in March 2012, when Enbridge announced its plans, that the company could add "thousands of jobs" to the state while also providing "a boost to America's energy independence."