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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Kalamazoo River Spill Yields Record Fine

Air Date: Week of
Tarred great blue heron (Michigan DNR)

Ten days after the Macondo oil well was capped on the floor of the Gulf of Mexico in July 2010, a pipeline in Michigan cracked open, leading to the biggest pipeline spill since records have been kept. Lisa Song, a reporter for Inside Climate News, tells host Bruce Gellerman that the pipeline carried Canadian tar sands crude and that has seriously hampered the cleanup.


GELLERMAN: From the Jennifer and Ted Stanley Studios in Somerville Massachusetts, it’s Living on Earth. I’m Bruce Gellerman.

Two years ago this month, a large oil pipeline carrying thick oil from the tar sands of Canada to Michigan ruptured, sending nearly a million gallons of the gooey crude into the Kalamazoo River, resulting in the most costly pipeline disaster in US history. And only now are we starting to learn what really happened that day, July 25th, 2010. Lisa Song was one of the reporters from Inside Climate News who investigated the Kalamazoo disaster.

SONG: The spill occurred near the community of Marshall, Michigan, in southwestern area of the state, and in this part of the state there’s a major river called the Kalamazoo River that flows by the community. And there’s also a pipeline, an oil pipeline called 6B, that’s buried underground in a wetland area near the river.

Cleanup on Talmadge Creek (EPA)

So, at about 6 p.m. on the 25th of July, the company, which is called Enbridge, they had a control room in Alberta that was monitoring everything going on with the pipeline. And they had started to take the pipeline offline for some routine work when an alarm went off in the control room.

When the first alarm went off, there was basically confusion, you know, they were discussing the situation and more alarms went off and the operators basically thought there was a large bubble somewhere in the pipeline, and they thought that’s what was causing the alarms and the different pressure drops. It wasn’t until after 11 a.m. the next morning that a local Michigan utilities employee saw crude oil in a creek and he called the Enbridge emergency line. So that’s how the company found out.

GELLERMAN: So Lisa, how can it be that you’ve got alarm bells going off in Edmonton headquarters, and it turns out it’s a random utility worker in Michigan who’s gotta say, "hey you’ve got a rupture in the pipeline"?

SONG: That’s just what happened. The Federal Department of Transportation actually just fined Enbridge $3.7 million dollars and as part of that fine they listed 22 probable violations that happened relating to the spill. And several of those are about what happened in the control room.

Michigan DNR agent with painted turtle (Michigan DNR)

GELLERMAN: So this thing gushed out for 18 hours before somebody accidentally found out that there was a hole in the pipeline.

SONG: Well, it was offline, so for many of those hours the pipeline wasn’t under pressure, but oil was leaking out. And then at two different times that morning, the control room operators restarted the pipeline. So for a few of those hours, oil was gushing out at much higher rates because it was under pressure.

GELLERMAN: So they restarted the pipeline when the alarms were going off?

SONG: Yeah, they thought it was basically a bubble in the pipeline. And they thought they could overcome it by increasing the pressure.

GELLERMAN: Now Lisa, your news organization, “Inside Climate News,” has uncovered some disturbing information about the EPA’s response to the spill during the first crucial hours and days after the spill. There was information that Enbridge didn’t provide to the EPA. How is that?

SONG: What spilled was not conventional crude oil. It was not the kind of oil that the EPA or the Coast Guard or any cleanup crews had experience with. It was diluted bitumen, which is different.

GELLERMAN: Different how?

SONG: It’s different because it’s a mix of really thick crude oil called bitumen and these light hydrocarbons.

GELLERMAN: This stuff is more like tar than oil that we think of when we think of oil.

Worker covered in oil at Talmadge Creek (EPA)

SONG: It’s thick, it’s like peanut butter, which is why they have to dilute it. And what happened was the EPA went into the spill thinking it was a conventional crude oil spill. They thought everything was normal, and when this diluted bitumen spilled, it at first floated on the water. So that just reinforced the concept that it was regular crude oil. But over a period of days, the light hydrocarbons started evaporating. And after they evaporated, all you have left is the heavy bitumen, and that’s what sank into the river.

The EPA started to realize the severity of the problem in mid-August, when some clean up workers, walking through the river in their hip waders, noticed that whenever they stepped into the river, these flakes of oil would float up from the bottom and create this oil sheen. And so they put poles into the river to stir up the sediment, and found all of this oil gushing up.

GELLERMAN: So the EPA didn't know what they were dealing with, and the company didn’t bother to tell them?

Tarred vegetation Kalamazoo River (EPA)

SONG: As far as we know, no. Many of the EPA officials in interviews later told reporters that this spill was unlike anything they’d ever faced. And in numerous interactions with Enbridge, the company never pointed out that it was diluted bitumen.

GELLERMAN: So what was the consequence for the EPA? They thought they were dealing with crude, and they were dealing with this bitumen, this tar.

SONG: It basically made the cleanup much more difficult and expensive. So the EPA went in thinking, “we’ll have this cleaned up in two months.” Now it’s two year later and they’re still cleaning it up. So the EPA and other cleanup crews had to basically invent methods of cleaning up the submerged oil. The normal way to clean up submerged oil, or one way to do it, is to dredge the bottom of the river, is to dredge the sediment. But if you do that, you pretty much destroy the ecosystem. So they had to improvise more gentle ways of cleaning up the submerged oil without destroying the river they were trying to save.

Tarred painted turtle (Michigan DNR)

GELLERMAN: You know, I think for many people, they’ve never heard of this. This is the biggest environmental disaster they’ve never heard of.

SONG: Yeah, and I think one of the reasons why they don’t know about it is it happened about three months after the BP oil spill occurred, the Macondo well.

GELLERMAN: This oil, this crude, is coming from the same tar sands that they want to export oil down through the new XL Pipeline that they want to build.

SONG: Yeah, yeah, and that’s something that drove our reporting is we’ve been reporting a lot on the Keystone XL pipeline and in talking to the residents along that route in Nebraska, South Dakota, Montana and all the other states, they’re all worried about how the pipeline, how a spill from the Keystone XL, could contaminate their groundwater. And so we looked into this Michigan spill, and now we know what happens when diluted bitumen spills into surface water, but we still don’t know what would happen if it spilled into an aquifer.

Pipeline Split (NTSB)

GELLERMAN: And they’re calling it the most expensive oil spill in U.S. history. How much has it cost so far?

SONG: 765 million.

GELLERMAN: Three quarters of a billion dollars.

SONG: Yes.

GELLERMAN: And how close is the Kalamazoo River from being cleaned up?

SONG: Most of the river is now open; there’s still a section where there’s still submerged oil, and EPA says it might take as long as months or years to clean it all up.

GELLERMAN: And meanwhile the bitumen continues to flow.

SONG: Yeah, we’re importing a lot of diluted bitumen from Canada, and those imports are only going to increase.

GELLERMAN: Well, Lisa Song, thanks so very much for coming in. Really appreciate it.

SONG: Thank you.

GELLERMAN: That’s reporter Lisa Song from “Inside Climate News.”



Kalamazoo River Spill Timeline

Inside Climate News Enbridge Spill Coverage


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