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The Dilbit Disaster: Inside The Biggest Oil Spill You've Never Heard Of, Part 1

A black goo stopped just 10 feet from the metal cap that marked his drinking water well. Walking on the tarry mess was like stepping on chewing gum.

By Elizabeth McGowan and Lisa Song, InsideClimate News

Jun 26, 2012
On Sunday, July 25, 2010, Enbridge Line 6B ruptured near Marshall, Mich. and rel

MARSHALL, Mich.—An acrid stench had already enveloped John LaForge's five-bedroom house when he opened the door just after 6 a.m. on July 26, 2010. By the time the building contractor hurried the few feet to the refuge of his Dodge Ram pickup, his throat was stinging and his head was throbbing.

LaForge was at work excavating a basement when his wife called a couple of hours later. The odor had become even more sickening, Lorraine told him. And a fire truck was parked in front of their house, where Talmadge Creek rippled toward the Kalamazoo River.

LaForge headed home. By the time he arrived, the stink was so intense that he could barely keep his breakfast down.

Something else was wrong, too.

Water from the usually tame creek had inundated his yard, the way it often did after heavy rains. But this time a black goo coated swaths of his golf course-green grass. It stopped just 10 feet from the metal cap that marked his drinking water well. Walking on the tarry mess was like stepping on chewing gum.

LaForge said he was stooped over the creek, looking for the source of the gunk, when two men in a white truck marked Enbridge pulled up just before 10 a.m. One rushed to LaForge's open front door and disappeared inside with an air-monitoring instrument.

The man emerged less than a minute later, and uttered the words that still haunt LaForge today: It's not safe to be here. You're going to have to leave your house. Now.

John and Lorraine LaForge, their grown daughter and one of the three grandchildren living with them at the time piled into the pickup and their minivan as fast as they could, given Lorraine's health problems. They didn't pause to grab toys for the baby or extra clothes for the two children at preschool. They didn't even lock up the house.

Within a half hour, they had checked into two rooms at a Holiday Inn Express, which the family of six would call home for the next 61 days.

Their lives had been turned upside down by the first major spill of Canadian diluted bitumen in a U.S. river. Diluted bitumen is the same type of oil that could someday be carried by the much-debated Keystone XL pipeline. If that project is approved, the section that runs through Nebraska will cross the Ogallala aquifer, which supplies drinking water for eight states as well as 30 percent of the nation's irrigation water.

"People don't realize how your life can change overnight," LaForge told an InsideClimate News reporter as they drove slowly past his empty house in November 2011. "It has been devastating."

* * * *

The spill happened in Marshall, a community of 7,400 in southwestern Michigan. At least 1 million gallons of oil blackened more than two miles of Talmadge Creek and almost 36 miles of the Kalamazoo River, and oil is still showing up 23 months later, as the cleanup continues. About 150 families have been permanently relocated and most of the tainted stretch of river between Marshall and Kalamazoo remained closed to the public until June 21.

The accident was triggered by a six-and-a-half foot tear in 6B, a 30-inch carbon steel pipeline operated by Enbridge Energy Partners, the U.S. branch of Enbridge Inc., Canada's largest transporter of crude oil. With Enbridge's costs already totaling more than $765 million, it is the most expensive oil pipeline spill since the U.S. government began keeping records in 1968. An independent federal agency, the National Transportation Safety Board, is investigating the accident, and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has launched criminal and civil probes.

Despite the scope of the damage, the Enbridge spill hasn't attracted much national attention, perhaps because it occurred just 10 days after oil stopped spewing from BP's Macondo well in the Gulf of Mexico, which had ruptured three months earlier. Early reports about the Enbridge spill also downplayed its seriousness. Just about everybody, including the EPA officials who rushed to Marshall, expected the mess to be cleaned up in a couple of months.

What the EPA didn't know then, however, was that 6B was carrying bitumen, the dirtiest, stickiest oil on the market.

Bitumen is so thick—about the consistency of peanut butter—that it doesn't flow from a well like the crude oil found in most of the nation's pipelines. Instead the tarry resin is either steamed or strip-mined from sandy soil. Then it is thinned with large quantities of liquid chemicals so it can be pumped through pipelines. These diluents usually include benzene, a known human carcinogen. At this point it becomes diluted bitumen, or dilbit.

Some environmental organizations say dilbit is so acidic and abrasive that it's more likely to corrode and weaken pipes than conventional oil. The oil industry disputes that hypothesis. It says dilbit is no different from conventional crude.

No independent scientific research has been done to determine who is right. But a seven-month investigation of the Enbridge spill by InsideClimate News has revealed one fact neither side disputes: The cleanup of the Kalamazoo River dilbit spill was unlike any cleanup the EPA had ever tackled before.

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