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Seriously, Enbridge? Clean Up the Kalamazoo Already!
A Canadian pipeline company asks the EPA for more time to dredge a Michigan river where it spilled tar sands oil more than three years ago. Request: denied.

More than three years after spilling over a million gallons of tar sands crude into Michigan’s Kalamazoo River, Enbridge still hasn’t finished cleaning up the oily mess. Now the U.S. government has a simple message for the energy giant: quit stalling.

Enbridge is one of several Canadian companies trying to expand its North American pipeline network (its biggest rival is TransCanada, pusher of the controversial Keystone XL), despite well-documented concerns over the safety and climate implications of transporting tar sands oil from northern Canada. And since the July 2010 rupture of the Enbridge pipeline in western Michigan, Enbridge has missed a series of EPA deadlines for cleansing the Kalamazoo of oil.

December 31 was the latest deadline for dredging still-fouled stretches of river, but last month Enbridge requested a ten-month extension, claiming that project delays and the upcoming winter made meeting that cutoff impossible.

Too bad, said federal EPA coordinator Jeffrey Kimble in a letter rejecting the company’s excuses. “Had Enbridge taken appropriate steps earlier as requested, it would not require an extension now,” Kimble wrote.

In March, the EPA ordered the company to extract “recoverable submerged oil” from contaminated sections of the Kalamazoo via dredging, a process that entails scooping out oil-fouled sediment and depositing it in a landfill. The only problem: Enbridge planned to locate one of its dredge pads—a structure that stores sediment until it can be hauled away—in Comstock Commerce Park, a 95-acre industrial park near Morrow Lake, one of the polluted sites. That idea dismayed many Comstock Township residents, who feared that contaminated sediments held at the dredge pad would taint well water and emit airborne pollutants. The founder of nearby Bell’s Brewery filed suit to block the dredge pad, and in August, Comstock town officials voted to deny Enbridge the permits it needed to operate in the park.

Enbridge has since struck a deal with Kalamazoo County to dredge in another spot along the river. But company representatives say the Comstock delay will prevent them from finishing by year’s end, and the approaching Michigan winter—and possible freezing of the river—will soon make operations impossible. "We have thoroughly researched and examined every possible way to be compliant with this order," Enbridge spokesman Jason Manshum recently told MLive. "We have not left any stone unturned."

But the feds aren’t buying it. In its letter, the EPA points out that Enbridge had known about Comstock Township’s opposition to the dredge pad since July and should have developed backup plans. What’s more, the agency says that winter work is indeed feasible.

If Enbridge doesn’t finish dredging this winter, more trouble could be in store for the beleaguered Kalamazoo, still fouled with up to 180,000 gallons of diluted bitumen, or dilbit — the heavy, corrosive tar sands oil that Enbridge’s pipeline was carrying when it ruptured. Over the last three years, high river flows have repeatedly stirred up and transported the submerged dilbit. If the remaining oil is still lingering come spring, when the snows melt and the Kalamazoo runs higher and faster than usual, contaminated sediment could wash downstream, spreading the mess further.

Despite the EPA’s admonition, Enbridge likely won’t finish dredging by the end of the year. If so, the company—which already expects to pay at least $22 million in Clean Water Act fines and has spent an estimated $1 billion on the cleanup—may be on the hook for further penalties.

Of course, considering that the spill was caused by systemic negligence and repeated safety violations, no one in Kalamazoo is likely to shed tears for the pipeline company. Among its many transgressions: Enbridge had detected the weakness that eventually led to the pipeline rupture as early as 2005 but didn’t fix it, and on the day of the spill, operators ignored alerts for 17 hours, assuming they were false alarms. The company’s “culture of deviance,” as federal investigators termed it, caused this disaster. Nice to see that the EPA doesn’t want any further deviance from its long-delayed cleanup plan.

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Ben Goldfarb is a freelance environmental writer whose work has appeared in The Guardian, Earth Island Journal, Green Futures Magazine, and elsewhere. He is a former editorial intern at OnEarth and former editor of Sage Magazine. MORE STORIES ➔
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