Kalamazoo River Spill: Two Years Later and the Tar Sands Mess in Michigan Still Looks Ugly

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This week marks the two-year anniversary of the massive Kalamazoo River pipeline spill. The event looks very different now than it did in 2010, when authorities openly worried that the Michigan mess would ooze tar sands oil into the Great Lakes. While there is still work underway to sop up the spill, it already stands as the longest and costliest pipeline cleanup in American history. And the ongoing investigations have given us a clearer and more frustrating view of the disaster, making it clear to anyone looking that our growing affinity for Canada’s bottom-of-the-barrel unconventional tar sands oil is unsafe on a variety of levels.

In Michigan, the EPA has spent the last two years “writing the book” on what a tar sands cleanup looks like in an American river. While the disaster was unfolding, the CEO of Enbridge was on-hand, but did not bother to tell authorities that they should consider some alternative cleanup techniques to deal with the heavier-than-water bitumen slurping out of his busted pipe. As a result, the cleanup was largely focused on skimming oil off the surface initially. Later, officials realized that a wide swath of the river bottom was mucked with tar sands oil globules, as were sensitive wetlands along the waterway. The cleanup has focused on those areas since and recent press reports imply that even though most of the oil is gone, some of those submerged globules are continuing to spread.

The fact that Enbridge’s CEO did not offer up help in this area is not surprising. The National Transportation Safety Board reports detailing the disaster are riveting to read; offering a shocking and damning account of incompetence and a bullying work atmosphere in the Alberta control room that was supposed to prevent this sort of spill. But his unwillingness to even admit that tar sands were involved in the unfortunate incident, even when asked directly by multiple reporters, continues to shock me. 

And that lack of transparency is an important point at this moment in time. There are bevies of new tar sands pipeline projects being pushed through at the moment. Sure, there’s the overly-politicized ugliness around Keystone XL. But  there is also the pipeline reversal scheme in central Canada and New England that had gone by the name Trailbreaker at one time, but is now broken into smaller pieces so as to more easily sneak the plan to export tar sands oil from the east coast through. In Canada, there is the much-hyped and much-delayed Northern Gateway project which would move tar sands through the Rockies to an unwelcoming British Columbia coast. Here in Illinois, there is a pipeline that would move the oil from Flanagan south to the Gulf Coast, an effort to move tar sands oil out of the Midwest and increase the price refineries in this region pay for the commodity (but guess who likely eventually pays that cost at the pump…).

And, of course, there’s Enbridge’s galling plan in Michigan.

Enbridge was warned of hundreds of anomalies in their Line 6B. For years, they did nothing about them until one of those anomalies burst, spilling that million gallons of tar sands into the Kalamazoo River. Now, the company plans to replace the entire pipeline. No, not to eliminate the anomalies, but to double its capacity. This comes even as their Michigan disaster is informing a debate about whether raw tar sands oil, which is more acidic and chock full of corrosion-inducing sulfur than typical petroleums, can even be moved safely in pipelines. The National Academy of Sciences is holding hearings on the issue this week and a report is due next year. But of course, Enbridge isn’t waiting for that. Which leaves me wondering if they just do not understand the dangers of the stuff they are forcing at high pressure and elevated temperatures through their pipelines, or if they just don’t care. Take this astounding op-ed from an Enbridge VP that ran in a Michigan paper. It is so full of mistruths and mischaracterizations that I am left scratching my head unable to decide whether the errors are intentional or not. But whatever the case, folks along the pathways of Keystone XL and all the rest of those tar sands projects should pay heed. The Kalamazoo River spill undercuts all the safety claims about speedy response (it took them more than 17 hours to shut the pipeline down) and leak detection (the spill was identified by a staffer from a natural gas utility in Michigan). And it makes clear that this stuff isn’t your daddy’s oil. It is heavy, stubborn and tough to clean. We already know it is the worst carbon polluting petroleum on the planet. In this steamy summer, we should already be concerned about its expanding usage and the impact on our climate. But we still don’t even know if it can be safely moved in the US. With so many of these projects moving past and through sensitive water resources, it only takes one glance at the Kalamazoo to know that we shouldn’t be moving more of this stuff until we can figure that out.

Kalamazoo River Spill image by Michael Stolz via Flickr