A Pipeline Runs Through It: The Kalamazoo River, failing infrastructure, the Great Lakes and the fate of our nation

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We people are a forgetful bunch. We need reminders. Out of sight; out of mind. It’s why we pay attention to birthdays and anniversaries. We sometimes need a little calendar jolt to remind us of what is important. And the half-anniversary of the Kalamazoo River Oil Spill this week should remind us that, despite some very clear reminders, we have done precious little to fix our reliance on oil and the ever-more problematic system that delivers it to us.

Six months ago, while all eyes were on the mess in the Gulf of Mexico, we in the Midwest were surprised by our own big oil spill saga when an aging, faulty pipeline carrying heavy crude from the Canadian tar sands oil rush, burst open and spilled nearly a million gallons of its muck into the Kalamazoo River in Michigan. As some of the oil rushed downriver from the spill site near Marshall towards Lake Michigan, the Great Lakes region held its collective breath. The idea that the irreplaceable fresh water at the center of our region, the drinking water source for millions, would be fouled from an oil spill was simply appalling and previously unimaginable.

Thankfully, the spill did not reach the Great Lakes. Instead, the oil was confined within the Kalamazoo, fouling the banks of the river and the vexing the adjacent river communities. But, around the region we wonder what will come next from the pipeline systems snaking through every state in the area, under fields, roads and communities. It is worth noting that a few weeks after the Kalamazoo spill, the same pipeline system again failed, belching oil into roads and a waterway in Chicago's suburbs.

And at this time, major pressure is being exerted by oil companies and their servants in Congress for approval of the controversial Keystone XL pipeline, to carry tar sands crude from Canada 2,000 miles across the United States. The proposed pipeline would move through some of America’s most critical and sensitive water resources, carrying the kind of tar sands heavy crude that fouled Michigan’s waters six months ago.

Remembrance of the Kalamazoo River spill is a good place to start our re-evaluation of infrastructure, policies and begin the task of genuine renewal. The energy policies and the political systems that govern energy infrastructure from extraction, to transportation, to refining and use, are broken and compromised.  In short, we have to pay attention to this infrastructure before it fails and before we exacerbate the problem with further mega-project expansions. The pipelines are out of sight, but no longer out of mind in some areas. We need to examine the roots of this failed system, identify solutions and implement them—rather than continuing to invest billions in the same, faulty systems.

So, "Happy Anniversary…" The real work starts now. Too bad the folks who should be leading that fight have taken a very different turn. Michigan Representative Fred Upton, who represents Kalamazoo in Congress and is now the powerful chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Commission released a six-page agenda which fails to in any way address pipeline safety or advance solutions that would reduce our dependence on oil. More on that in my blog tomorrow.


Kalamazoo River Oil Spill image by Sierra Club via Flickr