Realities of a Tar Sands Oil Spill, One Year Later

Line 6B Enbridge Energy
The pipeline that burst during the Enbridge tar sands oil spill in Michigan - July 2010

Around this time last year, I made an emergency trip home to Battle Creek, Mich., after hearing reports of a major oil spill in the Kalamazoo River. The oil disaster gushed nearly 1 million gallons of tar sands oil into the Kalamazoo River watershed.

In the weeks following, I saw lives get turned upside down: families lost their homes, and many people fell ill from exposure to toxic benzene. I saw oil-soaked wildlife struggling to survive and wide-spread habitat destruction.

Now, a year later, I wanted to see whether Enbridge Oil had made any progress in cleaning up its oil spill—one that has turned out to be one of the worst ever in the Midwest. Unfortunately, the realities of a tar sands oil spill have proven that there’s a long way to go in the effort to restore the Kalamazoo River watershed for people and wildlife.

One Year Later, Michigan Tar Sands Oil Spill - Ceresco Dam
Tar sands oil on the Kalamazoo River, one year after the Enbridge oil spill. (Photo taken on July 18th, 2011 - by NWF's Beth Wallace)

On July 19, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) revealed the findings from its spring river assessment. The agency quickly confirmed my worst fear: The impacted waterways are in much worse shape than anyone had thought due to tar sands oil sinking into the riverbed. The EPA has identified over 200 acres of submerged toxic tar sands oil that has spread, unseen, throughout 40 miles of waterway.

The EPA explained that they have identified locations of “heavily contaminated” sediment: Talmadge Creek, Ceresco, Mill Pond, and Marrow Lake (to name a few). Most shocking is Marrow Lake. Until now, it has been reported that little to no oil ever reached Marrow Lake. Now, it’s believed that large amounts of submerged tar sands oil contaminated the lake, under the surface of the water and undetected for nearly a year.

The EPA has given Enbridge until August 31 to address the areas identified in the spring assessment. After that date, the EPA will re-evaluate the extent of contamination from the submerged oil and what action needs to be taken. Meanwhile, Enbridge is collecting the toxic oil on the bottom of the river by dredging, aerating, and racking the river – then placing oil-collecting booms downriver to capture any oil that resurfaces.

With the resurfacing and mixing of oil comes continued disruption and devastation to wildlife habitat and wildlife. The Fish and Wildlife Services (FWS) reported that since the start of 2011, an additional 287 oiled turtles have been captured and cleaned, while 47 turtles remain in care.

To add insult to injury, the heavy and toxic metals that are found in tar sands are starting to be detected along sections of the impacted Kalamazoo River, as reported by Todd A. Heywood (7-20-2011) with the American Independent:

In late August, 2010 EPA officials confirmed water samples were producing slight detection of both mercury and nickel — common heavy metal contaminates of tar sands oil. EPA said then the levels were nothing to be concerned about.

On Tuesday, the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality announced it had been detecting several heavy metals and other contaminates at levels above what are considered safe.

“What we do see are elevated levels in areas of contamination that exceed some of the state’s criteria for groundwater and surface water criteria,” said a MDEQ official whose name was not clear in a recording of the press call with federal and state officials updating about the oil spill recovery work.

With the new discovery of vast quantities of submerged oil and elevated samples of heavy and toxic metals, doubts are arising about whether Enbridge Energy low-balled the size of the oil spill. The EPA is punting that question to Enbridge and the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB), which is investigating the cause of the pipeline spill – completing of that investigation is expected later this year or early 2012.

Talmadge Creek, One year after the Enrbidge tar sands oil spill
Talmadge Creek, One year after the Enrbidge tar sands oil spill

New details about the Enbridge oil disaster come as the nation grapples with two other high-profile pipeline failures near Yellowstone National Park and in Alaska. Yet, it amazes me that congressional leaders in Michigan, whose districts were personally impacted by this spill, are promoting tar sands and pipeline expansion before pipeline safety. The impacted communities of Michigan are in a unique position to pass along these lessons learned and demand change, yet our leaders continue to ignore the facts and side with big oil.

Before any other pipeline or tar sands projects gain approval, there needs to be environmental and human health impact studies to fully understand the impacts of a tar sands oil spill. Congress also needs to require a study on the impacts of transporting this more corrosive and toxic tar sands oil through our pipelines, which are not built for its corrosive nature and high pressures.

Before any pipeline project gains approval, like the Keystone XL, we need to fully understand what happened with Enbridge tar sands pipeline, line 6B, and the dozens of other pipeline spills that have happened in the last year. Congress needs to focus on increased pipeline safety to ensure that our communities, natural resources and wildlife will never face another oil spill disaster like the one in the Kalamazoo River.

Please reach out to our Congressional leaders and demand that we protect communities, wildlife and our natural resources before rushing dangerous tar sands pipeline projects, like the Keystone XL.