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The Dilbit Disaster: Inside The Biggest Oil Spill You've Never Heard Of, Part 3

'Hearing the oil being described as a totally different product knocked my feet out from under me,' Miller recalls. 'What else have they lied to us about?'

By Elizabeth McGowan and Lisa Song, InsideClimate News

Jun 28, 2012
The Kalamazoo River remained closed to the public for almost two years.

As the fall of 2010 approached, John LaForge could still smell tar when he drove by his old house with the windows of his truck rolled down.

LaForge had lost hope that he and Lorraine would someday return to the house on Talmadge Creek where they had raised four children. Tire tracks from heavy equipment had scarred and muddied the lawn LaForge once tended so carefully.

The cleanup of North America's biggest dilbit pipeline spill was behind schedule and LaForge's property in southwestern Michigan, about a quarter mile from where an Enbridge pipeline had split open on July 25, was ground zero. More than 2,050 workers had flocked to Marshall, a community of 7,400. Parking was such a hassle at Kate's Diner, where he ate breakfast before work, that he worried regulars would stop patronizing the restaurant.

LaForge began negotiating with Enbridge for the company to buy his property. In September, he and Lorraine, along with their daughter and her three young children, left the two hotel rooms they'd shared for 61 days and rented a house while they looked for a place to buy. Enbridge footed the $12,000 hotel bill and agreed to pay their rent. All the moving was taking a toll on Lorraine. She was still recovering from the emergency gallbladder surgery she'd undergone while they were living in the hotel.

The LaForges salvaged photographs, dishes and hardwood furniture from their home of 28 years. But the oil stink had permeated their mattresses, clothing, books, toys, rugs and upholstered furniture. They left it all behind."How do you replace your granddaughter's little dress from her first day in kindergarten?" LaForge said, looking back on that difficult transition. "You put your sweat and heart into a place and then somebody comes along and destroys it. It's painful."

The spill was adding stress to Deb Miller's life, too.

She and her husband, Ken, finally re-opened their carpet and flooring store in October, two months after the spill forced them to shut it down. They had no intention of selling their house or business, even though both buildings were located near Ceresco Dam, another focal point of the cleanup. Enbridge offered to pay their rent if they temporarily relocated their business, but the offer didn't cover the cost of moving their inventory. The Millers said no. Instead, they accepted an "inconvenience" payment for lost income.

Watching the cleanup drag on was turning Miller into an activist. Her bout with breast cancer had sensitized her to health issues, and she feared that the toxicity of the oil might have jeopardized residents and emergency responders in ways that scientists didn't understand. She filled a three-ring binder with 8-by-10 color photographs documenting the mess at the dam and carried it to meetings and strategy sessions with neighbors.

"First responders are our neighbors, our dads and our brothers," she said. "What training were they provided? Our local agencies were tasked with responsibilities they were in no way equipped to handle."

In mid-September, Miller took her photos to Washington, D.C., where she and five other Calhoun County residents testified before the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee. The chairman, Jim Oberstar, was a Democrat from Minnesota, where another section of Enbridge's Lakehead pipeline system is located. Two representatives from Michigan served on the committee: Mark Schauer, a Democrat who represented the Marshall area, and Candice A. Miller, a Republican from the eastern part of the state. (Candice Miller is not related to Deb Miller.)

It was Deb Miller's first trip to the nation's capital. She was nervous, but determined to be heard. She labored almost three weeks on her 19 pages of testimony. Congressional staffers had told Miller and her neighbors to "write from the heart."

"I knew I had to do what I had to do," she said recently. "My message was that I'm not going away. We told our stories because somebody had to put a face on what the impact of this spill was."

The Sept. 15 hearing in the Rayburn House Office Building lasted seven hours. EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson was among the witnesses. So were National Transportation Safety Board Chairman Deborah Hersman and Enbridge CEO Patrick Daniel.

Miller sipped water to control the nagging cough she'd had since the spill.

"I was an innocent bystander," she said when it was her turn to sit behind a microphone and address the committee. "I did not choose to breathe that foul air. I did not choose to lose a summer to … vacuum trucks, fan boats, and helicopters and strangers on my riverbank, not to be able to utilize our pool in our back yard for lack of privacy. I did not choose to close my business, and I certainly did not choose to watch the geese struggle while covered in oil. Enbridge made that decision for me.

"I sincerely hope this spill will ensure that you (Enbridge) will be more responsible with the maintenance of all of your pipelines, even if it means replacing them all," she added. "I pray they will remain closed until that can be determined how safely to restart them."

Another Calhoun County resident, Michelle BarlondSmith, told the committee that when she and other residents of a Battle Creek trailer park sought health care for spill-related symptoms, an Enbridge representative told them they had to sign a waiver form. They later learned that the form gave the company access to their entire medical histories.

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