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A Year After Pipeline Spill, Tar Sands Oil Still Plagues a Michigan Community

Kalamazoo River oil spill
A year after a pipeline carrying tar sands oil ruptured in western Michigan, nearby Morrow Lake is still closed.
Tar sands oil has proven more damaging and difficult to clean up than traditional crude

For a year now, Marshall, Michigan, has resembled a town under siege. Orange and yellow booms stretch across the Kalamazoo River, and warning signs tell swimmers and boaters to stay out of Morrow Lake, a popular fishing spot, “due to ongoing oil spill response." Residents have grown accustomed to the constant hum of helicopters and the sight of airboats roaring upriver. Burly cleanup workers frequent the Dark Horse brewery, and residents seek compensation for damages at a former cabinet store-turned-claims office amidst cheery photos of the 181-year-old town.

It’s been like this since last July 25, when more than 800,000 gallons of crude spilled from a pipeline into a creek that feeds the Kalamazoo River, about 100 miles upriver from Lake Michigan. The EPA ranks it as the largest spill in Midwestern history, but even so, officials say that oil from a typical disaster of that size would have been cleaned up long ago: skimmed, soaked, and vacuumed from the surface.

But this was no typical oil spill. The pipeline owned by the Canadian company Enbridge carried mostly heavy, viscous crude from tar sands fields in Alberta, Canada, bound for Midwestern refineries. Raw tar sands oil, or bitumen, is so thick that it has to be mixed with a thinning compound, or diluent -- a highly volatile derivative of natural gas that includes large amounts of benzene and other toxic chemicals -- in order to make it liquid enough to pump through pipelines.

When that combination, known as DilBit, spilled out of the ruptured pipeline, the benzene and other chemicals in the mixture went airborne, forcing mandatory evacuations of surrounding homes (many of which were later bought by Enbridge because their owners couldn’t safely return), while the thick, heavy bitumen sank into the water column and coated the river and lake bottom, mixing with sediment and suffocating bottom-dwelling plants, animals, and micro-organisms.

Surface skimmers and vacuums were no help, and a full year later, EPA officials and scientists are still working on a plan to remove submerged oil from about 200 acres of river and lake bottom. EPA officials had given Enbridge an August 31 deadline to get all the oil out, but they now say a full cleanup could take years.  “Where we thought we might be winding down our piece of the response, we’re actually ramping back up,” said Mark Durno, one of EPA’s on-scene coordinators. “The submerged oil is a real story -- it’s a real eye-opener. … In larger spills we’ve dealt with before, we haven’t seen nearly this footprint of submerged oil, if we’ve seen any at all.”

Critics say that what happened in Marshall was a dramatic example of the potential environmental, economic, and public health risks of transporting tar sands oil long distances -- something that fossil fuel companies want to do in increasingly greater amounts as demand for their product grows in response to rising gasoline prices and concerns about U.S. reliance on oil from the Middle East. An Enbridge competitor, TransCanada, is pushing the Obama administration to approve a new 1,700-mile-long pipeline known as the Keystone XL in order to move tar sands oil from Alberta -- whose refineries can no longer handle all the bitumen being extracted from the ground -- to facilities in Texas.

But environmental watchdogs and concerned lawmakers say the Kalamazoo spill, and another one earlier this month from an ExxonMobil pipeline on the Yellowstone River in Montana, show that moving more raw tar sands oil is a bad idea, at least until tougher safety standards can be put in place to protect air quality, drinking water, and public health. Keystone XL would cross the Ogallala Aquifer, which supplies water to almost a third of the irrigated agriculture in the United States and provides drinking water to millions of Midwest residents. The new pipeline would connect with portions of another network known as Keystone, which has already sprung at least 12 leaks from pipelines and pumping stations since going online about a year ago -- a concern expressed in a recent letter from seven U.S. senators to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.

“The fact that we’re still cleaning up a major oil spill in the Kalamazoo River a year later is a good indication that we need to seriously think about tar sands safety before we build a new tar sands pipeline,” said Susan Casey-Lefkowitz, director of the international program at the Natural Resources Defense Council. She called the review of pipeline safety issues by the State Department, whose approval is needed for Keystone XL to move forward, “totally inadequate.”

A January report by NRDC, the Sierra Club, and the Pipeline Safety Trust says that pipelines transporting DilBit are at greater risk of rupturing, based on a comparison of spills on pipelines carrying mostly tar sands oil versus those carrying mostly conventional crude. Tar sands is more abrasive and more corrosive than conventional oil, the report says, and pipelines like the one near Marshall were built a half-century ago, long before tar sands were being shipped. And when those pipelines do rupture and spill tar sands oil, the potential impact on public health and the environment is worse and longer lasting. After the Kalamazoo spill, for example, health department surveys found that more than 300 residents living near the spill suffered ill effects in the following weeks and months, including severe headaches, nausea, and respiratory problems.

Enbridge officials including CEO Patrick Daniel repeatedly denied last year that their pipeline had spilled tar sands oil into the Kalamazoo River, telling OnEarth that it was carrying conventional oil from the Cold Lake region of Alberta. But that region produces tar sands oil, and eventually, after further media questioning, Daniel acknowledged as much. Likewise, after ExxonMobil spilled more than 40,000 gallons into the Yellowstone River on July 2 of this year, company officials initially denied that their pipeline ever carried tar sands oil, yet under pressure later admitted that it did. That apparently came as a surprise to regulators at the U.S. Department of Transportation’s Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration, who told Reuters last week that they didn’t know the heavier, more dangerous crude sometimes flowed through the line.

A year after Kalamazoo, the National Transportation Safety Board is still investigating the cause of the spill. Many locals were outraged by Enbridge’s slow response to indications of trouble on the pipeline, which apparently started after a routine shutdown the evening of July 25. Numerous reports of a natural gas smell were called in to 911 starting at 9:26 p.m. Firefighters investigated during the night and also smelled natural gas and petroleum, but they couldn’t find the source. Enbridge officials controlling the pipeline from Edmonton attempted to restart it repeatedly despite problems and didn’t send a worker onsite until the next morning, according to a timeline compiled by the Michigan Messenger.

The spill’s impact on wildlife remains unknown; the first study results aren’t expected until at least September. But about 2,400 turtles coated with oil have been cleaned, treated, and released over the past year. In Talmadge Creek, where the spill occurred, several species of fish were wiped out, according to Michigan Department of Natural Resources official Jay K. Wesley.

Enbridge estimates that it will spend about $550 million on the cleanup, most of which will be covered by insurance. It could also be liable for additional fines and citizen claims, plus damages from any lawsuits.  The company wouldn’t comment for this story, except by email, in which spokesman Jason Manshum said: “Enbridge has committed since the outset of this incident to restore the area as close as possible to its pre-existing condition. … We remain fully committed to that goal.”

But Gary Morgan, a retired sheriff’s deputy and karate school owner in Marshall, said he doesn’t think the river will ever return to its previous state. “People used that river so much, you’d hear them talk about seeing foxes and deer and this and that,” he said. “That’s the tragedy. You can clean it up enough to use it, but it will never be the same.”

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Kari Lydersen is a Chicago-based freelancer and journalism instructor at Columbia College and in a non-profit youth program. She is the author of three books, most recently "Revolt on Goose Island: The Chicago Factory Takeover and What it Says About ... READ MORE >
Please tell the U.S. Army Corp of Engineers that DiscFlo of California makes a Tesla Pump and that they don't wear out or that they can handle the muck that continues to ruin our Earth and enviroment. They also failed to use resonant energies to drive away the beetles that ate up all the white bark pine trees. Resonant energies that insects find very irratating to them, so they leave the area never to return. When does Washington DC ever take an honest and active interest in public service in our Republic.
Wow, to think that it has been a year since the oil spill and it is still not cleaned up. I wonder why there has not been any political or media pressure placed to get it completed sooner. This really is a very sad story.
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Excellent explicit piece -- thank you to the author, and to On Earth, for sharing this important information and story. Many more people need to understand the problems with transporting tar sands, especially via existing pipelines. This Michigan story is a terrifying example of how corporate ineptitude can change the lives of so many people with such terrifying, costly, and long term negative effects -- their homes, their air, their water for consumption and recreation, their plant and animal habitats, and their ability to interact with the local environment which promotes a spiritual regeneration for the community. It's absolutely wrong. Why has The New York Times not covered this?
I am stuned that this company has been able to cover this over. Where is the media coverage and government alarm? Is is sabotage? How can we trust the DOE, DOI, or any govt arm to watch over these corporations? How long will it be before the Great Lakes, or some State of the Union become another sacrifice to global oil plunder? Are we to accept this as "business as usuall"?