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."
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.
A key piece of data related to the biggest tar sands oil spill in U.S. history has disappeared from the Environmental Protection Agency's website, adding to confusion about the size of the spill and possibly reducing the fine that the company responsible for the accident would be required to pay.
The July 2010 accident on an Enbridge Inc. pipeline dumped thousands of barrels of Canadian dilbit into the Kalamazoo River and surrounding wetlands. But almost three years and two federal investigations later, one of the most important questions about the spill remains unanswered: Exactly how much oil spilled from the pipeline?
The same question is being asked about a more recent dilbit spill—a March 29 accident on ExxonMobil's Pegasus pipeline in Mayflower, Ark. Estimates for that spill, which is still being cleaned up, have risen from 80,000 gallons to more than 200,000 gallons.
Determining the size of an oil spill is important, because every barrel of oil that reaches a navigable waterway triggers a statutory fine of $1,100 per barrel under the Clean Water Act. The fine rises to $4,300 per barrel if a company is proven to have acted with gross negligence.
InsideClimate News reporters Elizabeth McGowan, Lisa Song and David Hasemyer are the winners of this year's Pulitzer Prize for national reporting.
The trio took top honors in the category for their work on "The Dilbit Disaster: Inside the Biggest Oil Spill You've Never Heard Of," a project that began with a seven-month investigation into the million-gallon spill of Canadian tar sands oil into the Kalamazoo River in 2010. It broadened into an examination of national pipeline safety issues, and how unprepared the nation is for the impending flood of imports of a more corrosive and more dangerous form of oil.
The Pulitzer committee commended the reporters for their "rigorous reports on flawed regulation of the nation's oil pipelines, focusing on potential ecological dangers posed by diluted bitumen (or "dilbit"), a controversial form of oil."
If all goes well, the next oil removal operation on Michigan's Kalamazoo River will mark the beginning of the end for the cleanup of the largest oil pipeline spill in U.S. history
The spill, which occurred in July 2010, already has cost pipeline operator Enbridge Inc. more than $820 million in cleanup expenses. That figure could top $1 billion by the time the latest operation is carried out.
The goal of the new effort is to dredge three areas of the river where the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency says oil is still accumulating. When the EPA first proposed the idea in October, Enbridge asked the agency to delay its decision until it conducted more scientific studies. But Enbridge agreed to comply after the EPA issued an order on March 14.
The EPA fears that if the oil isn't removed, it could continue to spread and contaminate parts of the river that are currently clean.
Surveys "show that submerged oil can now be detected throughout the 2 mile long, 700 acre expanse of [Morrow] lake," the EPA said in a letter that accompanied the order. "By contrast, only 189 acres showed submerged oil impact in Fall 2011. In Spring 2012, the area of impact had progressed to 325 acres."
A recent industry-backed study of diluted bitumen, the Canadian crude oil that would be shipped through the proposed Keystone XL pipeline, contradicts what environmentalists have said for years—that diluted bitumen, or dilbit, sinks in water and is much more difficult to clean up than conventional crude oil.
Instead, the study found that dilbit floats when it spills into water, a claim that contradicts what happened during a major dilbit spill in Michigan's Kalamazoo River in 2010. The cleanup of that spill already has cost more than $810 million, and the Environmental Protection Agency is still struggling to figure out how to remove the submerged oil.
The study is important because there is little scientific research on how dilbit reacts in water, and because the Keystone would cross thousands of U.S. waterways, including the critically important Ogallala aquifer in Nebraska.
But five scientists interviewed by InsideClimate News say the study was so narrowly constructed that it shouldn't be used to draw conclusions about dilbit. The experiment's laboratory conditions didn't reflect most real-life situations, they said, and the study ignored the consequences of the Michigan spill.
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.
In the northwestern corner of Indiana a major pipeline project is planned that will carry vast quantities of heavy Canadian crude oil across four rivers that flow into Lake Michigan, where 10 million people get their drinking water. The pipeline will cross one river just 11 miles from the lake. It crosses the other three rivers less than 20 miles from the lake.
Because the pipeline runs so close to Lake Michigan—and because it is being built by a company with a history of pipeline spills in the region—a growing coalition of environmental groups is demanding that it be given extraordinary oversight and protection.
But getting those protections will be almost impossible.
No federal or Indiana agency has authority to require the pipeline's Canadian operator, Enbridge, Inc., to move the line out of the Lake Michigan watershed—or to add extra safeguards, including sophisticated technology that can detect even minor spills.
This was the year "dilbit" registered on the U.S. political and public radar in a major way.
Bitumen is a heavy crude oil mined from Canada's oil sands region. The bitumen is so thick that it must be diluted with liquid chemicals before it can flow through pipelines—hence the term dilbit.
Environmental groups have long opposed oil sands production due to its climate change impacts. But dilbit is also significant because it doesn't behave like conventional crude oil when it spills into water. Those risks became apparent in July 2010, when a ruptured pipeline spewed more than a million gallons of dilbit into Michigan's Kalamazoo River.
Revelations that preventable safety lapses were behind Enbridge's disastrous oil spill in Michigan thrust the issue of pipeline safety into the mainstream this year.
A two-year investigation by the National Transportation Safety Board in July found that a "complete breakdown of safety" at Enbridge led to the 2010 oil spill in Michigan's Kalamazoo River. The spill originated from a ruptured pipeline that spewed more than 1 million gallons of diluted bitumen (oil from Canada's tar sands) into the water. It was one of the largest inland oil spills in U.S. history and forced residents to relocate, caused health problems and left a mess that's still being cleaned up today.
The NTSB report criticized the Canadian pipeline giant for inadequate safety inspections and other human errors that resulted in Enbridge ignoring the spill for 17 hours.
An agency official compared Enbridge employees to the "Keystone Kops"—a phrase that drew immediate comparisons to a separate Keystone, the Keystone XL pipeline that's being proposed to cross the Ogallala aquifer, the nation's most important source of irrigation and drinking water.