A Mess in Michigan: Pipeline spill reminds us just how dirty tar sands can be

What is going on with Big Oil this year? The Gulf. Spills in Minnesota and Salt Lake City. And now, very bad news from Michigan, where crews are cleaning up after yet another major oil infrastructure failure. According to the Detroit Free-Press, over 800,000 gallons of oil has spilled from a pipeline into the Kalamazoo River and a nearby creek. The Kalamazoo flows into Lake Michigan near the town of Saugatuk making my colleague’s “water or oil” Switchboard post seem prescient now.

Tens of billions of dollars have been spent in the Great Lakes to run new pipelines and upgrade refineries to accommodate the tar sands oil, which has been called the dirtiest oil on the planet. The damaged pipeline in Michigan, operated by Enbridge, runs between Griffith, IN and Alberta. The pipeline termination sits less than 10 miles from BP’s Whiting Refinery which has been a source of public concern after lax pollution permits were awarded by the State of Indiana for a massive expansion to process ever-more of Canada’s carbon-intensive tar sands oil. Enbridge has a pretty spotty record in the region with nearly two dozen spills in Michigan and Minnesota alone in recent years (including one just a few months ago in Minnesota). And in Wisconsin, Enbridge was fined $1.1 million for environmental infractions that, according to the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel, impacted forests and wetlands across 14 counties.

This isn't the only pipeline in the news. Just last week, the USEPA called for a reassessment of the proposed Keystone XL pipeline which would cross six states and nearly 2,000 miles transporting tar sands from Alberta to the Gulf Coast. The first Keystone pipeline, which moves tar sands from Alberta to eastern Illinois, has begun to deliver tar sands oil---despite concerns over the quality of steel used and sensitive water supplies that could be impacted by a pipeline failure like the one in Michigan.

One thing has been made very clear by the Gulf disaster and the spills that have followed---we cannot accept Big Oil’s assurances that their massive and growing infrastructure projects are safe. The public has been clear about a desire to make the shift to clean energy. As the mess in Michigan shows us, tar sands oil is anything but clean.