Three Years Later, Michigan Tar Sands Oil Disaster Spells Urgent Warning For Midwest, Country

Print More

The Michigan pipeline that ruptured near Kalamazoo in 2010, causing the worst on-land spill in U.S. history. Click on the photo to see The UpTake's video report.

The Michigan pipeline that ruptured near Kalamazoo in 2010, causing the worst on-land spill in U.S. history. Click on the photo to see The UpTake's video report.

A Special Report for The UpTake by Jacob Wheeler

Kalamazoo, MI

Sue Connolly knew immediately that something was terribly wrong. Three years ago, the resident of Marshall, a town of 7,400 in southwestern Michigan, awoke to a burning sensation in her eyes and throat that made her and her family sick.

“There was a strong odor in the air that took your breath away,” Connolly recalls. “If you tried to take a deep breath, you would feel it all the way down to your stomach. Migraine headaches, lethargy and diarrhea followed.”

Connolly and her neighbors were among the first witnesses to the July 25, 2010, Kalamazoo River oil spill — a massive pipeline rupture that dumped nearly one million gallons of bituminous crude oil into Talmadge Creek, which feeds the Kalamazoo River.

Better known as tar sands oil, the stuff that spilled into Talmadge Creek became the largest and most expensive on-land oil spill in U.S. history. The water level was high that week, and a black goo quickly covered the banks and the flood plains on either side of the river. Authorities initially feared that the spill could reach Lake Michigan, 115 miles downstream. It didn’t reach the big lake, but it still became a big disaster.

The spill was caused by a six-and-a-half-foot gash in Line 6B, a 30-inch carbon steel pipeline operated by Enbridge Inc., Canada’s largest transporter of crude oil. Alarms had sounded the previous evening at an Enbridge control room 1,500 miles away, in Edmonton, Alberta, but the warnings were ignored. Believing that low oil pressure warnings from the Michigan pipeline only indicated an air bubble, Enbridge engineers ignored the alarms and continued pumping oil. It wasn’t until 11:17 the following morning that a Michigan utility company employee called Enbridge’s emergency number to report that oil was gushing into the creek.

By that time, Sue Connolly knew first-hand that a disaster was underway. But local residents and first responders were both woefully unprepared.

“When the spill happened, we got a call that there was oil in the Talmadge Creek, and we expected to see an overturned truck or something like that,” says Jay Wesley, natural resource manager with the Michigan Department of Natural Resources (MDNR). “Half the river was black. For us here in Michigan, we never thought we were an oil state. My staff had never been trained for this type of event.”

“We had plans for tornados and even terrorists, but we never had a plan for an oil release,” echoed Paul Makowski of the Calhoun County Health Department.

And this oil was not the oil that bubbled up from the ground for Jed Clampett and The Beverly Hillbillies. This oil was a far nastier kind of oil, tar sands oil, a thick, sticky form of hydrocarbon so heavy and thick that, according to Wikipedia, “it will not flow unless heated or diluted with lighter hydrocarbons. At room temperature, it is much like cold molasses.”

Most Michiganders were unaware that a Canadian oil firm was pumping diluted bitumen, or “dil-bit”, through its 293-mile pipeline in southern Michigan. Dil-bit is fracked out of the bedrock. Then chemicals are added to the gooey, peanut butter-like substance to make it viscous and capable of being pumped through a pipeline. Line 6B is part of Enbridge’s Lakehead system, which transports Canadian crude to refining stations in the Midwest and Ontario.

When this kind of crude spill happens, the crude turns into crud as the bitumen separates from the chemicals. The oil becomes heavy and sinks, and harmful chemicals like benzene, a human carcinogen, are released into the air. Those are the chemicals that sickened Sue Connolly’s family, and hundreds in Marshall.

Three years after the Kalamazoo River spill, this tragedy holds important warning signs for communities and municipal and state governments. Oil pipelines crisscross the entire country, running through Midwestern states that are not oil producers — like Minnesota and Michigan — but which have become oil transit zones. Many of them already carry Canadian Tar Sands oil.

The July 6 disaster in Quebec, when a runaway train carrying oil blew up much of the town of Lac Megantic, killing 47 people (at last count), highlights the perils of transporting oil by rail. The country has entered a new and dangerous phase as we tap into deposits of exotic fossil fuels, find new ways to produce them, and confront difficult problems about how they can be safely transported.

“The industry in Canada plans to triple production by 2030,” says Josh Mogerman, a spokesperson with the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC). “Folks who are concerned about climate issues are concerned about these production numbers. That’s part of the reason why you’ve seen such an uproar over Keystone XL.”

Environmentalists are frantically pressuring the White House to reject the proposed Keystone XL pipeline, which would carry Tar Sands oil from Alberta to refineries in the Gulf of Mexico, and across the Ogallala Aquifer, the underground water resource which supplies drinking water for eight Great Plains states and 30 percent of the nation’s irrigation water. Meanwhile, in Michigan, environmentalists are also worried about an Enbridge pipeline that runs underwater through the straits of Mackinac.

“All across the state of Michigan and all across the Great Lakes basin, pipelines are being expanded,” says Beth Wallace, community outreach coordinator with the National Wildlife Federation (NWF) and a native of Marshall, Mich. “This ultimately makes the Midwest the hub for the transportation of Tar Sands and refining.”

A spill in the Mackinac Straits could dump hundreds of thousands of gallons of oil directly into Lake Michigan and Lake Huron in the heart of the world’s largest freshwater resource. A July 14 protest at the famed Mackinac Bridge sought to hold Enbridge accountable. The rally, keynoted by environmental leader Bill McKibben, was organized by advocacy groups including, the National Wildlife Federation and the Michigan Land Use Institute.

“The good news is that we have the technology we need to stop using fossil fuels,” McKibben told approximately 400 concerned attendees. “And I see our movement rising everywhere now. If we manage to stop (global) warming, you will have done the most important thing you could ever possibly do. What happens over the next 10 years will determine what happens to us over the next 10,000.

“The big companies have lots of money, but we have other kinds of currencies to fight back,” the co-founder of continued. “If I were Exxon/Mobil or Shell Oil or Enbridge, I’d be scared now. They are used to being left alone; but now there’s a huge fight against what they are doing, and you, by being here today, are part of it.”

Rally organizers began an online petition pressing Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder to demand better protection for the Great Lakes from the pipeline, which daily carries almost 22 million gallons of oil and gas from Superior, Wis., through Michigan’s Upper Peninsula and on to refineries in Sarnia, Ontario. Enbridge’s Line 5 flows through pipes on the Lake Michigan floor and passes near many inland lakes and streams.

Organizers also called on Enbridge to replace Line 5 with modern piping and sensor technology and permanently ban its use for Tar Sands oil, which, as the Kalamazoo River spill demonstrated, is far more difficult to clean up.

Enbridge maintains that it has no plans to ship dil-bit crude through the Mackinac Straits, but Wallace, who spoke at the July 14 rally and co-authored NWF reports on the Kalamazoo River spill and on the risks of Line 5, urged rally-goers to be skeptical of the global pipeline giant’s claims.

“Enbridge must be held to the highest possible standards by the Environmental Protection Agency and PHMSA (the U.S. Department of Transportation’s Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration). The company must agree to no Tar Sands, ever, through this pipeline.”

NRDC and other advocacy groups published a report in 2011 that showed that heavy Tar Sands oil corrodes pipelines much faster than conventional crude does. In fact, Canadian pipelines transporting dil-bit have ruptured 16 times more often than American pipelines carrying traditional crude, even though Canada’s pipelines are much newer.

“Usually, when we think of oil, we think of Jed Clampett going out and up from the ground comes ‘a-bubblin’ crude,’ ” says Mogerman. “You see pictures of the old gushers in California. But this is fundamentally different from that. This petroleum is either strip-mined or steamed out of the ground. Diluted-bitumen requires significantly more pressure to move this heavy, sludgy stuff through the pipeline. They also operate at a higher temperature. Dil-bit is very high in sulfur, which contributions to corrosion, and it is more highly acidic than typical petroleum.”

But the oil industry claims that Tar Sands oil poses no greater risk to pipelines than conventional crude does. A report released in June by the National Research Council, a 12-member committee of technical experts and scientists, supported the industry’s rebuttal, stating that “diluted bitumen does not have unique or extreme properties that make it more likely than other crude oils to cause internal damage to transmission pipelines from corrosion or erosion.”

According to Enbridge, it wasn’t heavily diluted bitumen that caused the Kalamazoo River spill, but faulty coating on the outside of the pipeline that led to corrosion. Company spokesperson Jason Manshum says that the old coating, which was one-quarter of an inch thick and wrapped around the pipeline in the 1960s, has been replaced by fusion bonded epoxy coating 0.375 inches thick.

In early May, Manshum spoke to fellows with the Institutes for Journalism and Natural Resources (IJNR) who were reporting on the oil spill. At Enbridge’s Kalamazoo office, he performed a show-and-tell routine with six different oil samples. What he said was a capsule of diluted bitumen sounded just like water when he shook the container, implying that it was no less viscous than the others.

“I want you to listen to this; that’s a pure liquid,” says Manshum. “All of the sand and the clay that could be abrasive are extracted before it ever gets in the pipeline. We could not ship a product through our terminals, storage facilities and pump stations if there was something abrasive in them. It would be like if you fueled up your lawnmower and you had sand in your gasoline. Would your lawnmower run for very long? No, it would probably break down.”

After the Kalamazoo River spill, local environment and municipal officials were surprised that the oil didn’t remain on the surface but sank to the bottom and coated riverbank vegetation and wildlife. It took about a week for Enbridge to disclose that the spill involved diluted bitumen rather than traditional crude. Officials and first responders eventually figured it out for themselves.

“This oil was heavy to begin with,” explains Ralph Dollhopf, incident commander with the Environmental Protection Agency. “Certain components of this oil began to volatilize (evaporate), making an already heavy oil even heavier. It was clear to us that there were volatilization issues associated with the oil.”

One byproduct of the Tar Sands oil was the benzene that escaped into the air and posed a health risk to nearby residents and first responders.

“We were very naïve about the health effects of the oil, especially the benzene,” said MDNR’s Wesley. “Our crews naturally wanted to get on the river immediately and start working. But they had to be held back.”

Remarkably, three years later, Talmadge Creek, which was Ground Zero for the spill, and the Kalamazoo River itself, have largely recovered. The aquatic ecosystem looks clean, save for the occasional oil-stained tree. And fish and wildlife have returned. After Enbridge’s initial omission to report the type of oil that spilled, the company has received praise from local officials for its cleanup effort.

IJNR fellows who paddled the river in May found scant evidence of remaining oil. But the EPA’s Dollhopf said that small “sheens” or globules of oil do appear on warm days, particularly when the riverbed is disturbed by currents or a canoe paddle.

Marshall residents haven’t forgotten the accident. Claiming it needs to upgrade the pipeline coating, and citing growing demand for its product, Enbridge is building a new 280-mile pipeline, parallel to the current one. Local citizens, through whose backyards both the existing and the new pipelines will run, are worried about future spills.

“They’re curving the new pipeline (easement) around our house,” says Dave Gallagher, whose home sits mere feet from the current pipeline. “Pumping oil at that kind of pressure, what’s that going to do with the pipe?

“The heat that’s generated from these pipes helps melt the snow in the wintertime,” adds Gallagher, who worries what the pipeline’s proximity will do to the resale value of his home.

“Enbridge dealt poorly with individual landowners, they have been dismissive of local municipalities, and they have been stubborn when it came to the regulatory process here in Michigan,” says Jeff Insko, who started the “Line 6B blog” to inform local citizens about Enbridge’s intentions.

Feeling they’ve been bullied by Enbridge, landowners such as Insko and Sue Connolly say that the biggest asset they have is each other. Citizens like them will be on the front lines if another oil spill happens.

“The first people who are going to know about a pipeline spill are the residents who live here,” says Connolly, whose daughter developed a strange rash three days after the oil spill. “It’s not gonna be the pipeline company, it’s not gonna be your first responders, it’s gonna be us.”

While it is employing newer and better technology, Enbridge can’t guarantee that another oil spill won’t happen, either in the Kalamazoo River or in the Straits of Mackinac.

“We’re clearly not yet there,” says Manshum. “But we’re putting all the pieces in place to minimize the risk of any leaks. Much like I can’t get on an airplane at Detroit Metro Airport and be assured there won’t be any mechanical trouble or that the plane won’t crash. But I can tell you that many procedures have changed internally, and externally as well, to minimize that risk.”

Those words aren’t good enough for environmental advocates like the NRDC’s Josh Mogerman.
“We need to know how to move this stuff safely,” says Mogerman. “We need to study and know if this stuff requires additional and different infrastructure to move it safely.”

Reporting for this story was made possible in part by a fellowship from the Institutes for Journalism & Natural Resources. Slightly different versions of this story appear at Earth Island Journal and at the Glen Arbor Sun.

This is Jacob Wheeler’s last story for The UpTake; After three years of covering politics and issues such as Occupy Homes, community resilience in North Minneapolis, the push for same-sex marriage rights, fair taxation and wages, and the 2011 labor uprising in Madison, Wis., Jacob is returning to his home state of Michigan. Contact him in the future at

The UpTake wishes him well.


Comments are closed.