Historic Michigan oil spill a common topic in Nebraska's Keystone Pipeline debate

The break in Line 6-B. (Photo: NTSB)
Oil coats the surface of the Kalamazoo River in 2010. (Photo: Michigan DEQ)
In June 2017, Kayakers were a common site along the Kalamazoo River (Photo: Pat Sulier)
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July 25, 2017 - 6:45am

As the debate over the Keystone XL pipeline resumed in Nebraska, a massive spill of oil sands in Michigan seven years ago routinely worked its way into public hearings and policy discussions.


Oil industry, environmentalists, use Michigan spill for lessons learned ahead of Keystone debate


Map shows the location of Enbridge Line 6-B and the Marshall, Michigan leak. (Map: NTSP Final Report)

The Kalamazoo River oil spill became a point of reference for both opponents and supporters of the Nebraska project.

It became either a worst-case scenario of an environmental disaster or a dark cloud with “a silver lining” where the pipeline industry learned important lessons and took quick action to make moving crude oil safer.

This summer NET News took a look back at what one writer referred to as "the biggest oil spill you’ve never heard of” just as interest in Keystone XL is peaking in advance of Nebraska Public Service Commission (PSC) hearings early in August. A decision on whether TransCanada, the project's corporate sponsor, may proceed is expected no later than November of this year. The Trump administration has already approved allowing the pipeline to cross the Canadian border.

(First of two parts)

Numbers give you an idea of the scope of what occurred on the Kalamazoo River in July 2010.

  • 877,000 gallons of heavy sour crude escaped (aka diluted bitumen).
  • The leak remained out of control for 17 hours.
  • 35 miles of river were polluted.
  • 320 people reported symptoms consistent with crude oil exposure.
  • 150 families were permanently relocated from riverside homes.
  • It was four years until the river was again considered safe for the public.
  • $1 billion. That was the cost of clean-up.

The Kalamazoo runs through south central Michigan, under canopies of lush green forest and past quaint towns, rolling into Lake Michigan to the west.

There was a time during before the 1970s the river was considered a toxic joke to Michiganders. Everyone from paper mills to the auto industry used it as a dumping ground. By 2000 the federal emphasis on clean rivers had made the Kalamazoo a source of civic pride for communities along its banks.

2010 Kalamazoo River Spill 

Clean-up crews move into a wetlands area near Marshall, Michigan.


Booms placed in the river failed to collect heavier sunken oil.


Crews work outside the LaForge home on Talmadge Creek.


Water entering the spillway at the Ceresco Dam.


Duck rescued for cleaning. (All Photos: EPA) 

On the night of July 26, 2010, about 10 miles upstream from where Jesse Jacox lives, a six-and-a-half-foot gash tore open the Enbridge pipeline where it crossed Talmadge Creek, a tiny tributary of the Kalamazoo. It wasn’t long before the oil completely displaced the water in the creek and surged unabated into the larger river, heading west.

The tidy ranch home owned by John LaForge and his wife sat at the confluence of the creek and river. He came home to find a fire truck in his drive way and the air filled with the chemical stench of Benzene.

The sticky, heavy sour crude “backed up 40 foot into my yard and it was about an inch and a half, two inches thick,” LaForge recalled. “You pushed down on that oil and it would come right back up.”

When he later drove farther downstream he saw “a rainbow of colors” floating on the surface of the water where he’d stopped to watch from a bridge. Further down in the town of Ceresco, at an out-of-service hydropower dam, the water pouring over the spillway “just looked like chocolate milk.”

“You would have been, as I was, sickened. You would have been very angry,” recalled long time river-advocate Jacox. “Like my soul had been ripped out of me.”

Jacox, 61, grew up just outside of Battle Creek and the river was where he escaped a difficult home life.

“It's my solace. It's always been my solace since I was a child,” Jacox told a visitor. “This has always been my place of resolute, my place to calm down and just walk through here and come across deer.”

He courted his late wife on the river and proposed marriage to her.

The first day of the spill he recalls the “horrible, terrible smell,” with an overpowering stench of oil and chemicals reminding him of the inside of “grandad’s old garage.”

“What I seen that first day, that first month, I just thought there was no way in hell they're ever going to bring it back,” Jacox said.

What makes the Kalamazoo spill a touchstone in the debate over the Keystone line was its contents: heavy sour crude. 

“Communities in Nebraska need to pay attention to what happened in 2010,” said Beth Wallace, a pipeline specialist with the National Wildlife Federation (NWF). Although the Keystone XL Pipeline is being proposed by TransCanada, the incident spawned by its competitor Enbridge should be considered by Nebraskans.

“The real, huge comparison is the product that each pipeline carries,” Wallace said. “Line 6-B carried diluted bitumen. It's a heavy crude oil. From what I understand, that's what will be running through Keystone XL.”

Line 6-B, a 30-inch oil pipe, had been built 40 years earlier. It connects with oil fields in Alberta, heads southwest before making the bend around Chicago, into southern Michigan and on to refineries in Sarina, Ontario.

An investigation by the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) found the rupture resulted from "well-documented crack defects in corroded areas" which the company repeatedly failed to repair and "inadequate training of control center personnel" in Canada who ignored signs an emergency was underway. Weak federal regulations and poor oversight from the agency tasked with regulating pipeline safety were also contributing factors, according to the NTSB.

(Read the full NTSB investigation HERE)

“I saw the oil there at the river and realized the scale of what we were talking about was going to be big” said Steve Hamilton, a Michigan State University wetlands biologist. He studied the environmental impact of bitumen in the years after the spill for the National Academy of Sciences.

Bitumen is the heaviest crude oil, found in natural oil sands deposits. On its own it’s too thick to be pushed through pipelines. A slurry of chemicals is injected into the pipeline stream to loosen the oil sands and make them more transportable. The make-up of the chemical cocktail is considered a trade secret by pipeline companies, but Benzene is thought to be a common component.

“Diluted bitumen, when it's exposed to air the lighter oils will evaporate off into the air, Hamilton said. “Then it leaves this residue that's kind of like molasses and eventually kind of like tar.

“It's very sticky.”

In the case of an oil spill, the mixed pipeline contents begin to separate. Lighter chemicals evaporate and the heavier oil sands sink below the water’s surface.

Heavy rains had swollen the river and the sheen of oil moved quickly and spread far.

The LaForge Home

An aerial view of the clean-up on the Laforge property in July, 2010. 

The property in June, 2010. Enbridge acquired and resold the land to a new owner.

"This river has a very larger floodplain and it was almost entirely flooded at the time the oil came down the river," Hamilton said. "Naturally, the oil went wherever the water went, which was into these forested floodplains that are pretty hard to even walk in in the summertime," meaning getting out out of the deep underbrush would be incredibly difficult.

“We quickly realized that we hadn't had much experience with spills of that kind of oil in the environment,” he said. “We weren't sure what to expect.”

In the main river channel, clean-up crews focused on the oil sheen on top of the water that ordinarily characterizes crude oil spills. Eventually the heavier bitumen began to sink to the bottom of the river and below the oil collection barriers ordinarily used to contain spills. Hundreds of gallons of oily “tar balls” were being carried by the current downstream, miles farther than the response teams had anticipated.

Federal, state and local first responders were flying blind because Enbridge withheld the information that the spill was something different from old-fashioned crude oil.

“This was new and they were in over their heads,” said Elizabeth McGowan, one member of a team of energy journalists who covered the spill for Inside Climate News. The series of stories eventually won a Pulitzer Prize.

“I felt like no one wanted to come out and say because of what it is it needs to be treated with kid gloves more than regular crude,” McGowan said.

Beth Wallace, the pipeline specialist for the National Wildlife Federation, calls the first week’s response “a complete mess.”

“(Enbridge) stated over and over again that they could manage it, they'd have it cleaned up in a few months. It was about the two week mark that the state declared a state of emergency and brought in their own resources to help manage it," Wallace said.

Eventually Enbridge was forced to dig out hundreds of tons of oil sand sludge from the river bottom. The company, facing numerous violations of the federal Clean Water Act, paid $177 million in fines to the U.S. Justice Department and the Environmental Protection Agency. A company official noted at the time the fines "won't have a material impact on us from a financial perspective."

The company also agreed to sweeping changes in procedures and new technology.

In the United States and Canada, the pipeline industry advanced its own initiative to improve the “culture of safety” that had been criticized as lax prior to major oil disasters in the previous decade. (The massive Deepwater Horizon explosion in the Gulf of Mexico occurred four months earlier in 2010).

John Stoody, a spokesperson for the Association of Oil Pipe Lines, told NET News the Michigan incident “was a pipeline spill that all pipeline operators want to avoid in the future, including the company itself.”

“The NTSB saw that there were holistic safety improvements that could be made; how companies operate their safety programs," Stoody said. "We seized on that opportunity to make improvements in each of these areas.”

(Read the annual Safety Excellence report from the Association of Oil Pipelines HERE)

In the campaign to advance construction of the Keystone XL pipeline in Nebraska, TransCanada has made quality control and safety a centerpiece of public presentations.  

“We certainly recognize that incidents, like Marshall, impact the public's perception of pipelines," said Matthew John, a spokesperson for TransCanada, adding there have been a host of changes in technology and improved safety procedures within the company since 2010.

“The industry does treat any incident, regardless of size, with the utmost seriousness…to work to ensure that an incident like that doesn't happen again,” John said.

Beth Wallace of the NWF, like a cadre of other environmentalists, advises caution.

“Even seven years later, following the 2010 release, they still have not put into procedures and plans all that they need to do for diluted bitumen,” Wallace said.

Most area residents interviewed during a recent visit to the area say they felt the clean-up of the Kalamazoo made recreation on the waterway even better. On a Father’s Day weekend kayakers were fishing and families took leisurely floats on clear, cool waters.

Biologist Steve Hamilton spent years researching the ecologically-diverse wetlands along the river’s corridor.

“I think the cleanup has been very successful and the river has apparently returned to normal,” Hamilton said. “It's proven to be a very resilient ecosystem, which is all very good.”

Jesse Jacox (in white t-shirt) in 2010 discussing the Kalamazoo spill with a member of the EPA's response team. (Photo: EPA)

As painful as the Kalamazoo River spill in 2010 was for Jesse Jacox, he now speaks highly of Enbridge and its efforts to restore the river he loves. He’s appeared in promotional materials for the company.

On a bright summer July afternoon, Jacox greeted kayakers using a boat ramp installed by Enbridge. It is one of three public parks the company built and turned over to the county.

Jacox thinks Enbridge deserves credit for the clean-up and learning its lessons.

“Why would anybody ever take a chance to have a billion-and-a-half-dollar boo-boo again?” he asked. “Any company is going to pay attention to this and do their utmost to make sure it doesn't happen again.”

John LaForge remains angry at the company. He and his wife were among those who voluntarily sold their homes to Enbridge rather than deal with the hassle of the extended clean-up and risk the potential of health hazards from oil that saturated their property.

Enbridge placed the new Line 6B pipeline into service on Oct. 1, 2014.

EDITOR'S NOTE: In an earlier version of this story the writer mistakenly inverted the name of the corporate spokesperson for TransCanada. His name is Matthew John. We regret the error.



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