Little evidence remains of the chaotic scramble to stop the massive oil spill that fouled Michigan's Kalamazoo River in the summer of 2010, yet the full effects of the calamitous accident will likely remain unknown for years.
State environmental officials says it could be 2018 before they are ready to issue a final verdict on the damage done to the Kalamazoo after more than a million gallons of heavy crude oil poured into the river from a pipeline owned by Enbridge Inc.
At the same time, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is showing increasing irritation with Enbridge over its delay in meeting deadlines in the ongoing cleanup.
Federal officials want Enbridge to finish a massive dredging project and institute safeguards to prevent any oil remaining on the river bottom from washing downstream during spring flooding.
Michigan environmental officials are drafting a settlement with Canadian pipeline operator Enbridge, Inc. over a series of violations of the state's water laws that occurred earlier this year.
The settlement would keep Enbridge out of court while requiring the company to beef up its environmental practices when testing the new pipeline it is building to replace Line 6B, which ruptured in 2010.
That spill fouled nearly 40 miles of the Kalamazoo River with heavy crude oil from Canada's tar sands region. The cleanup effort, which is still on-going, has so far cost the company nearly $1 billion. Enbridge also was fined $3.7 million for breaking as many as two-dozen federal pipeline safety rules.
The 210-mile replacement line, which will run from Griffith, Ind. to Ontario, Canada, is almost a year behind schedule. The project will be further delayed because Enbridge recently decided to suspend work in three Michigan counties for the winter.
The distant rumbling starts about the time David Gallagher pours his first cup of coffee in the morning.
It's a signal that work crews from Enbridge Inc. are beginning another day of construction on an underground pipeline that will someday carry 21 million gallons of heavy crude oil a day just 14 feet from his Ceresco, Mich. home.
By the time Gallagher settles into his favorite chair and sets his cup on the living room table, the parade of bulldozers, backhoes and trucks is grinding past just a few feet from his picture windows. The trembling sets off little seismic waves in his coffee.
Pipeline regulators in Canada and the United States are being cautioned that claims by Enbridge Inc. that it improved its safety procedures and adopted sophisticated inspection practices are exaggerated and that pipeline ruptures as catastrophic as the company's 2010 accident in Marshall, Mich. are still possible.
The warning came in a report filed this month with the Canadian National Energy Board, which is considering Enbridge's request to reverse the flow of an oil pipeline in Eastern Canada and to use the line to carry diluted bitumen, or dilbit. The report was subsequently lodged with the U.S. Department of State.
"Enbridge is still not heeding pipeline investigators/regulators in integrity management," said the report by Richard Kuprewicz, president of the engineering consulting company Accufacts Inc. and an adviser to the U.S. Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration. "Enbridge has a culture where safety management seems not to be a critical component of their operation."
The Kalamazoo River near Marshall, Mich. is a place of serenity these days. It ripples lazily past new parks and boat launches, past red barns and corn fields, past hikers and children in tire swings. Fish do somersaults and land with a splash. Dragonflies dart about like trapeze artists.
The only clues to the environmental disaster that occurred here three years ago are subtle ones. The rainbow sheens of oil that occasionally surface. The collection booms that still stretch across parts of the river. The riverside kiosks stocked with pamphlets titled "What Should I Do If I Come Into Contact With Oil?"
It was near Marshall that an aging oil pipeline burst on July 25, 2010 and spilled more than one million gallons of heavy Canadian crude oil into the Kalamazoo River. It was the largest inland oil pipeline spill in U.S. history, and its effects can still be seen today in the river and in the lives of the people who live near it. The Environmental Protection Agency estimates as much as 180,000 gallons of oil still lie on the river bottom and some of it is moving toward a Superfund site.
"I know what lies beneath," said Deb Miller, who was forced to close her family business because of the spill. "You can clean it up and try to put things back the way they were, but it will never be the same."
An oil pipeline being built across the southern part of Michigan is drawing new scrutiny from state regulators who recently cited the pipeline's operator—Canadian-owned Enbridge, Inc.—for violating laws that protect Michigan's waterways.
The violations occurred when Enbridge allowed nearly all the water it was using to test the pipeline's strength to escape into a creek instead of capturing some of it for treatment—and when the company did not self-report the violation to the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality (MDEQ), as required by law.
MDEQ officials told InsideClimate News they will now re-examine reports Enbridge filed after conducting similar tests on two other sections of the line. The new pipeline is supposed to replace Line 6B, which ruptured in 2010 and poured more than a million gallons of heavy Canadian crude oil into the Kalamazoo River.
The reports are important because the agency relies on pipeline operators to follow regulations and to inform officials when things go wrong. Enbridge violated that trust, the state said, when it failed to abide by at least 11 terms of the permit that allowed the company to conduct the test. The violations included not having a qualified operator at the site to supervise the procedure and not properly analyzing the water it put back into the creek.
The lawsuit that state and federal officials in Arkansas filed last week against ExxonMobil is unusual, pipeline experts say, because government agencies usually wait much longer—sometimes even years—before filing lawsuits against companies involved in pipeline accidents.
Exxon's Pegasus pipeline ruptured on March 29, spilling at least 210,000 gallons of heavy Canadian crude oil into Mayflower, Ark. about 25 miles northwest of Little Rock.
"And this [the lawsuit] comes along three months after?" said Carl Weimer, executive director of the Pipeline Safety Trust, a nonprofit watchdog organization based in Bellingham, Wash. "There's something at work here we simply don't know about."
Philadelphia attorney Andy Levine, a former senior assistant regional counsel for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, described the legal strategy being pursued in Arkansas as "a head scratcher."
Heavy rain that pushed the Kalamazoo River over its banks last month is being factored into the next stage in the long-running cleanup of the nation's biggest and most expensive oil pipeline spill—the 2010 accident that dumped more than 1 million gallons of oil into and around the river near Marshall, Mich.
The April flooding created the potential for the marble-sized globs of oil that had settled to the bottom of the river to be picked up by the swift current and swept into parts of the river previously untouched by the spill.
A month before the river crested, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency ordered the pipeline's owner, Enbridge Inc., to remove large pools of oil that remain at the bottom of three areas of the river. The order was triggered by the findings of a yearlong survey of nearly 6,000 locations along the 40 miles of river contaminated when pipeline 6B ruptured in July 2010.
As part of the survey, a team of 14 federal, state and local organizations coordinated by the U.S. Geological Survey modeled the river to show how it would behave at various flood levels.
Almost two months after a ruptured pipeline sent at least 210,000 gallons of oil flowing through a neighborhood in Mayflower, Ark., the line's owner—oil giant ExxonMobil—remains largely silent on the future of its failed pipeline.
Most of the visible oil has been removed from the neighborhood and the ruptured section of pipe has been replaced and reburied. Yet Exxon hasn't asked the U.S. Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA) for permission to restart the 850-mile Pegasus line, which runs across four states from Patoka, Ill. to Nederland, Texas.
A company spokesman said Exxon is simply being thorough and cautious.
Utah officials have given a Canadian company the green light to begin mining oil sands on a remote plateau in Eastern Utah without first obtaining a pollution permit or monitoring groundwater quality, an action that sets the stage for a possible court battle over the fragile region.
The board of the Utah Division of Water Quality agreed with Calgary-based U.S. Oil Sands' contention that there was little or no water in the area of the company's proposed mine site and affirmed the agency's earlier decision not to require the permits or monitoring.
The board's 9-2 vote Wednesday caps years of wrangling with the water agency over U.S. Oil Sands' proposal to open the first large-scale oil sands mine in the United States in the Book Cliffs, an area renowned for its abundant wildlife but also dotted with occasional oil and gas wells.