After up to a million gallons of oil spilled into Michigan's Kalamazoo River from an underground pipeline late last month, investigators and local residents focused on concerns about where and when the spill started and what should have been done to prevent it.
But one crucial concern was largely overlooked: What exactly was spilling out of the pipeline and into Michigan waterways? Environmental experts said it was likely tar sands oil -- the controversial asphalt-thick bitumen whose mining and drilling operations are causing major environmental destruction in the forests of Alberta, Canada. (See the OnEarth special report "Canada's Highway to Hell.")
While reporting on the spill, I asked Enbridge Energy Partners CEO Patrick Daniel several times whether his company's pipeline was carrying oil from tar sands -- or "oil sands," as the industry typically calls it. He definitively told me that it was not. I also emailed questions to Enbridge's spokesperson asking for confirmation of Daniel's statements and a definition of what the company believes does or does not constitute oil sands. The messages weren't returned.
In my August 6 OnEarth story, I reported Daniel's denials -- and the evidence that, despite those denials, tar sands oil had indeed spilled into the river. (See "Michigan Oil Spill Increases Concerns Over Tar Sands Pipelines.")
When Michigan Messenger reporter Todd Heywood, following up on the tar sands angle, asked Daniel the same question this week, he got a markedly different answer. He reported on August 12 that Daniel told him:
No, I haven't said it's not tar sand oil. What I indicated is that it was not what we have traditionally referred to as tar sands oil. ... If it is part of the same geological formation, then I bow to that expert opinion. I'm not saying, ‘No, it's not oil sands crude.' It's just not traditionally defined as that and viewed as that.
Josh Mogerman, senior media associate in NRDC's Midwest office, explains on his blog that linguistic gymnastics around the definition of tar sands have a long history. Industry officials have sought to avoid the increasingly negative connotations of tar sands extraction, which has a devastating effect on boreal forests and produces huge carbon emissions. Mogerman notes the irony of a company trying to deny the existence of the product that is its "bread and butter," in the words of Polaris Institute researcher Richard Girard, author of a corporate profile of Enbridge.
Daniel has emphasized that the oil in the pipeline in Michigan was not from the strip-mined deposits in the Athabasca region of Alberta, where forest is literally scooped off to access bitumen within 75 meters of the surface. Daniel said the oil in the Michigan pipeline, from Cold Lake, Alberta, south of the Athabasca area, was extracted through steam injection -- essentially melting the viscous oil underground until it is liquid enough to be pumped up -- and then diluting it by a third in order to send it through pipelines to refineries.
This is the way a large portion of tar sands are extracted -- in fact, when measured by surface area, the vast majority of tar sands deposits are mined through such "in situ" techniques, according to a map from the Canadian energy department. So the mere fact that bitumen is not strip-mined does not by any means make it not "tar sands."
During one interview, Daniel told me the oil that Enbridge was shipping from Cold Lake was not tar sands because those deposits "have never been controversial." The chemical makeup of a petroleum product, of course, would not in any scientific sense be defined by whether or not it is controversial. Daniel's response underscores Mogerman's analysis that, to the industry -- which wants to greatly expand the mining and transportation of fossil fuel from Alberta -- "tar sands" is a label to be avoided and sidestepped through semantics.
But calling bitumen by a different name doesn't remove the sulfur, mercury, and other heavy metals that it contains, which makes it more hazardous in a spill like the one on the Kalamazoo River. And it doesn't change the increased air and water emissions affecting local residents and their drinking water sources when the oil is refined in places like Whiting, Indiana, Detroit and Toledo.
Now the vast majority of the oil has been removed from the Kalamazoo River, and cleanup workers are in the process of scraping the small creek where the oil first spilled and removing contaminated soil. The soil removal process is expected to take months, according to EPA officials -- especially since rising water shortly after the spill spread oil across large swaths of the marshy region.
By August 9, Enbridge had opened storefront offices in Marshall, Michigan, where the spill happened, and nearby Battle Creek, where residents can submit claims for damages. The company has agreed to buy at least two homes and is in discussion with other homeowners.
So far, no contamination has been found in the wells of residents near the spill, but government regulators and scientists warn that groundwater contamination could take months or even years to show up. Such long-term safety concerns will be discussed at a meeting the EPA is holding in Kalamaazoo on August 19. Residents have reported that the once-pervasive sound of frogs from the river has been silenced. This was the kind of thing that Paul Newman, 52, mulled sadly as he watched the thick oil flowing down the river several days after the spill.
"It will look like it used to on the surface before too long," said Newman, who grew up fishing and canoeing the river. "But underneath, it will never be the same."
Photo: Kari Lydersen