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The Dilbit Disaster 3 Years Later: Sunken Oil Is Looming Threat to Kalamazoo River

Once black with oil, the Kalamazoo River runs clear now. But EPA orders dredging and says it will be years before the spill's long-term effects are known.

Jul 25, 2013
Dilbit disaster cleanup in Michigan

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." 


Click here to view an audio slide show about the three-year anniversary of the spill by InsideClimate News reporters David Hasemyer and Lisa Song.


The Kalamazoo accident was the first major pipeline spill involving diluted bitumen, or dilbit, the same type of oil that will be carried by the Keystone XL pipeline if the Obama administration approves the project.

Bitumen is a tar-like substance that must be diluted with liquid chemicals before it can flow through pipelines. When the Michigan pipeline split open, the chemicals slowly evaporated and the bitumen began sinking to the river bottom.

The spill turned the river and little Talmadge Creek black with oil. The air was so rank with toxic stink that emergency hotlines were flooded with calls from people sickened by the fumes. 

It was a chaotic scene of evacuations, armies of cleanup crews, stunned officials and anxious neighbors. It took the pipeline's owner, Enbridge, Inc., 17 hours to shut it down. The oil flowed past a historic dam near Miller's home and nearly 40 miles downriver.

Click map to enlargeMap of cleanup sites along the Kalamazoo River

Today, Line 6B is again pumping Canadian oil to U.S. refineries, while Enbridge builds a new, larger pipeline to replace it. People have moved back into some of the homes that were evacuated, while others have settled into new lives in houses far from the river.

Both the EPA and the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality (MDEQ) give the river a generally clean bill of health. But the EPA's Ralph Dollhopf, who has supervised the cleanup for the last three years, says, "We know we are not going to get all of the oil out."

The EPA has ordered Enbridge to dredge parts of the river and remove as much of the remaining oil as possible. Enbridge says it will comply, although it disputes the EPA's estimates, saying no more than 25,000 gallons of oil remain.

"You can look at the river and say it looks good but there are so many things that fly under the radar—those are the things that we will be monitoring for years," said Michelle DeLong, who is leading the MDEQ's response to the spill.

In the largest study in its history, the MDEQ has collected more than 5,000 soil and groundwater samples to determine if they contain heavy metals, including nickel, beryllium, molybdenum and vanadium, which are toxic at high doses. Heavy metals are found in all types of oil but are most prevalent in bitumen. Some, like arsenic and lead, can damage the nervous system even at relatively low doses. 

It will be a year or more before all the samples are analyzed and conclusions can be reached, said Mark Ducharme, senior environmental analyst for MDEQ. Most of the preliminary tests reveal nothing alarming, although a few locations show elevated concentrations of heavy metals and chemicals.

The MDEQ also is considering a proposal by Enbridge and the EPA to tear down the century-old Ceresco Dam, where much of the remaining oil has settled.

The dam once supplied water to a small hydroelectric plant that closed more than 50 years ago. Removing it would return that section of the Kalamazoo to its natural, free-flowing state. It also would reduce the amount of dredging needed, because the oil-soaked sediment would dry when the water level drops and could be scooped up and hauled away.

But some local residents are suspicious of anything Enbridge wants to do and are asking for more information.

Unknown Danger

The regulatory agencies' biggest concern is the oil that is still making its way toward the Superfund site. Recent tests show it has moved from the upper third of the Morrow Lake area into the lower two thirds, leaving less than a mile between it and the Superfund site.

The Superfund site contains approximately 120,000 pounds of PCBs (polychlorinated biphenyls), left there decades ago by the paper mills that once operated nearby. PCBs have been found to increase rates of melanoma, liver cancer, gall bladder cancer, gastrointestinal tract cancer and brain cancer. Scientists aren't sure what would happen if they became mixed with the toxic chemicals in the bitumen.  

To try to avoid that problem, the EPA has ordered Enbridge to begin the expensive and disruptive process of dredging about 155,000 cubic yards of oil-contaminated sediment from the lake. It also wants 180,000 cubic yards dredged from Ceresco Dam and 20,000 cubic yards from another area, known as Mill Pond. Michigan environmental regulators agree the dredging is needed but may ask that the size of the operation be reduced.

Richard Adams, Enbridge's vice president of field operations in the United States, faults the EPA for not taking into account a century or more of pollution that has been funneled into the river.

"You can't assume it's all 6B oil," he said in an interview with InsideClimate News.

Adams argues that no dredging is needed and that the EPA's estimate of the remaining oil is wildly inflated. 

"I don't know where those figures came from," he said "If there was as much oil in the river as EPA is saying, you'd see it. And that's not happening."

Dredging is not only expensive, but will also cause fresh damage by removing large quantities of sediment and possibly exposing long-buried toxins, he said.   

Steve Hamilton, a Michigan State University professor of ecology and environment who sits on a committee that advises the EPA on the cleanup, said dredging was always a last resort. But with the oil creeping ever closer to the Superfund site, it finally became necessary.

"You have to balance the negative consequences of this kind of invasive work with the benefits of removing the oil and any threats it may cause," said Hamilton, who is also president of the Kalamazoo River Watershed Council.

Although Enbridge disputes the EPA's decision, Adams said it will comply with the agency's latest cleanup order.  He emphasized that Enbridge—Canada's largest transporter of crude oil, worth an estimated $30 billion—has always accepted full responsibility for the disaster and will do everything necessary to make the community right.

Enbridge did not contest a record $3.7 million civil penalty imposed by the Department of Transportation, and Adams said it is bracing for more fines from the EPA and Michigan once the cleanup is finished.

The company has repaired its reputation with many people by taking responsibility for the spill and by funding parks and other community projects.

Joyce Saylor sees nothing but beauty when she looks out the window of the house, about 100 yards from Talmadge Creek, where she has lived for 64 years. The fields are green and the creek runs clear.

Clean-up crews worked day and night until they got her property cleaned up, Saylor said, even redoing work when necessary.

She said Enbridge always treated her with respect and compensated her fairly for the damage to her property and for a strip of land it bought. Enbridge used the land to build a small park that now bears the name of her husband's family, whose ties to the property go back to 1865.

"I even had the Enbridge president bring me flowers," Saylor said.

Others have not been so quick to forgive. 

Driving along the back roads outside Marshall, Deb Miller points to some of the 148 homes near the river that Enbridge eventually bought. Many of them sit vacant in what Miller calls "ghost neighborhoods."

The yards are neat; the grass is cut. But there is an eerie stillness about them.  

That stillness surrounds the tidy gray house next to Talmadge Creek where John LaForge and his family lived for 27 years. The oil came within 10 feet of their patio door, sickening his wife with the smell. They were among the first people evacuated and never again lived in the house.

At the age of 60, LaForge said he feels like he's starting life all over again. He and his wife have built a new 2,300 square foot house several miles from the creek. But he said the old house, with its memories of his children, will always be his home.

He's also bitter about the amount of money Enbridge paid for the house. A few years before the spill, he said it was appraised at $460,000. He said he got half that—$230,000—because Enbridge said the real estate bubble had burst.

"They knew my house was at Ground Zero and I couldn't sell if I wanted to. They took advantage of me."

LaForge's message for Enbridge? "Go to hell."

** Watch the audio slide show of the The Dilbit Disaster, 3 Years Later, written, narrated and edited by Pulitzer winners David Hasemyer and Lisa Song:**

Upended Lives

The fallout from the Enbridge accident has affected people who live far from the spill site but in the 285-mile path of its new pipeline, which runs from Indiana to Ontario, Canada.

The new pipe is three feet in diameter and can carry 21 million gallons of oil a day, about twice as much as the old line carries. The $1.3 billion project is "absolutely critical to the Michigan and U.S. refining industry," company officials say.

But for many people along the line it has meant a huge disruption in their lives.  

The old line had been mostly forgotten about until Enbridge began driving stakes into back yards to mark the land it needs for the new pipe. In addition to the existing 60-foot easement the company already has, the Michigan Public Service Commission gave it permission to take another 25 feet—about the width of a two-lane highway.

Homeowners have lost garages and decks to the bulldozers because the line is so close. Some have lost cherished wilderness and peace of mind. Others seethe at what they believe is the callousness of Enbridge for dismissing their concerns and upending their lives. 

Some property owners have protested by blocking access to their land. One Fenton, Mich., woman sat for hours in a lawn chair in front of trees that were to fall to Enbridge saws. Earlier this week 12 protesters from the Michigan Coalition Against Tar Sands were arrested after halting work on Line 6B.

Those who've taken their complaints to court have usually been disappointed.  Enbridge holds long-standing rights of way to the land and has abided by the state's pipeline regulations, so major decisions have gone in the company's favor.

Marshall resident David Gallagher recently spooled out a tape measure from the side of his house to the stake with the orange plastic flag ruffling in the breeze.  The new line will be just 14 feet, 11 inches from his house, he announced.

Gallagher, a cabinetmaker, said the project has made him and other Michigan residents aware of bigger issues, like the environmental and climate threats posed by oil sands production.

"The implications of this pipeline go beyond my yard, beyond my neighbor's yard," he said.  "People need to stop and ask themselves, 'Are there really any benefits to this versus the lasting consequences?'"

Jeff Insko, an American literature professor at Oakland University in Rochester, Mich. and author of the Line 6B Citizens' Blog, faults the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality for not holding Enbridge more responsible for potential ecological damage, the Michigan Public Service Commission for being too cozy with Enbridge and Michigan politicians for being deaf to residents' plights.

"Because state politicians and regulatory agencies have failed so miserably, we, like so many other landowners, have felt completely helpless and powerless, at the mercy of a corporation that wields overwhelming financial resources, power, and influence," Insko said. 

The concerns have spread to Indiana, too, where the pipeline will cross four rivers that flow into Lake Michigan. Environmental organizations fear that a mishap would imperil the drinking water for 10 million people and are demanding more safeguards and oversight. 

Grinding it Out

Dollhopf, the EPA's incident commander in Marshall, expects the agency to continue overseeing the Kalamazoo River recovery for as long as two more years. After the EPA bows out, Michigan environmental officials will take over.

"We're still grinding it out, making sure as much oil as possible can be recovered and making sure it is done responsibly," Dollhopf in an interview from his office in Marshall.

Like many people who were caught up in the 2010 disaster, Dirk Dunham, director of Emergency Management for Calhoun County, the county most affected by the spill, is eager for it all to be over. 

When Dunham first saw the devastation three years ago, he cried as he looked down on the oily black river from a helicopter. "How can this be fixed?" he remembers thinking.

Today Dunham uses the adjective "incredible" to describe what has happened since then. 

"There has been incredible effort, incredible science, incredible cooperation," he said. The river will come back, he believes, and perhaps "be even better."

 

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