Two and a half years after the costliest oil pipeline spill in U.S. history, the company responsible for the disaster is balking at digging up oil that still remains in Michigan's Kalamazoo River.
The cleanup has been long and difficult because the ruptured pipeline was carrying bitumen, a heavy oil from Canada's tar sands region. Bitumen is so thick that it can't flow through pipelines until it's mixed with liquid chemicals to form diluted bitumen, or dilbit. When more than one million gallons of dilbit poured out of the broken pipeline in July 2010, the chemicals evaporated and the bitumen began sinking to the riverbed.
Today, regulators and oil spill experts are still struggling to deal with the accident, which was the first major spill of dilbit into a U.S. waterway. The cleanup tools and techniques developed for conventional oil spills—which mostly float on water—are ineffective for submerged bitumen, so experts have had to come up with new methods.
In October, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency asked Enbridge Inc., the pipeline's Canadian owner, to clean up several miles of the river where submerged oil is still accumulating. The proposed order told Enbridge to dredge 80 to 100 acres of the riverbed. The request was based on the results of a yearlong study the EPA conducted with oil cleanup experts, Michigan state regulators and a committee of about 15 scientists.
The dredging is needed, the agency said, because the oil could spread into uncontaminated areas of the river if it isn't removed.
Steve Hamilton, a Michigan State University professor and a scientist on the committee, said the number of acres could change as the EPA continues to study the situation. "No specifics have been decided…Further recovery actions in the most contaminated sediments—potentially including dredging—are being contemplated."
Enbridge responded to the request by asking the EPA to delay issuing its final order until the agency completes some ongoing scientific studies. In a Nov. 2 letter obtained by InsideClimate News, the company questioned the EPA's assertion that the submerged oil is "mobile" and could contaminate sections of the river that are already clean.
"Studies and activities are currently ongoing to better understand the extent, if any, of submerged oil transport, containment of oil and recovery of oil-containing sediment related to the Line 6B release," Enbridge wrote.
The EPA is drafting its response to the letter and declined to comment about its discussions with Enbridge.
Nick Schroeck, executive director of the Great Lakes Environmental Law Center, said the Clean Water Act gives the EPA authority to order whatever cleanup it determines is needed. But in these types of cases, the agency likes to work with the responsible parties, he said, and make its orders as "least burdensome as possible" to avoid court challenges.
Enbridge, Canada's largest transporter of crude oil, was fined a record $3.7 million for the 2010 spill by the U.S. Department of Transportation. The National Transportation Safety Board blasted the company for a "complete breakdown of safety." The EPA is conducting a separate investigation of the accident.
The slow pace of the cleanup has angered Deb Miller, whose home is about 300 feet from Ceresco Dam, one of the locations targeted for dredging. When an area near the dam was dredged in 2010, Miller and her husband, Ken, lived for months with the noise of helicopters and machinery. So much heavy equipment blocked the roads by their nearby carpet and flooring store that their customers couldn't reach them.
Still, Miller wants Enbridge to abide by the EPA's order and dredge again near her home.
"It just really frustrates me, that our federal government allows a company to put a product through [a pipeline] where they don't know the effects and don't know how to clean it up," Miller said in an interview last week.
In 2010, Miller testified before Congress about the spill and she has joined the New Voices Project, an outreach group created by the nonprofit Pipeline Safety Trust, which advocates for improved pipeline regulations and practices.
Last fall, Miller took a garden rake and stirred up the bottom of the river. She said the oil "just came up black." Now that the river has frozen over, there's no visible contamination, yet Miller remains worried.
"There's no way I will ever let my 14-year old grandson step foot in the river," she said. "Us property owners [are] sitting with a river that's absolutely contaminated and changed forever. We were promised this would be made whole, that the river would be made better than it was before…In my mind, it comes down to a bottom line. They don't want to put the money into dredging."