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

River water samples containing bitumen rest on Michigan map. (Photo: EPA)
Workers install Enbridge pipeline repair in 2017. (Photo: EPA)
Oil sheen on Kalamazoo River following pipeling break in 2010. (Photo: Michigan DEQ)
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July 26, 2017 - 6:45am

Kalamazoo gets mentioned more often than you might expect in Nebraska these days.  During hearings to get public input on locating the Keystone XL pipeline in Nebraska, speakers reminded the Public Service Commission the same sort of oil sands were accidentally released into the Kalamazoo River in 2010 through the negligence of the Canadian pipeline company Enbridge.

Around the same time an article on the Nebraska Farmer website quoted a pro-pipeline university professor citing the Kalamazoo spill as an unusual occurrence that highlighted how safety has improved since the incident.

The lessons learned from the Kalamazoo spill resonate for both sides of the debate over where, or if, to build the Keystone XL pipeline proposed to cross Nebraska.

The Nebraska Public Service Commission is poised to make a decision about the future of the Keystone project before the end of the year. A final round of testimony and evidence will be presented during public hearings in Lincoln beginning August 7.


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



Map of the spill provided by the Detroit News.


Dark oil covers the surface of the Kalamazoo River in 2010. (Photo: Michigan DEQ)


Chris Burdette and his family start their Kalamazoo River float in 2017. (Photo: Pat Sulier)

Elizabeth McGowan, who reported on the spill for Inside Energy, says “there is a comparison” between pipelines 700 miles away.

“I understand why Kalamazoo was like a teacher’s reference guide for students of oil pipelines and spills,” McGowan said.

If built, Keystone XL would have different Canadian owners than Michigan Line 6-B, but McGowan says the entire industry came under scrutiny as the seriousness of the Kalamazoo spill became apparent.

“Companies were saying ‘don’t worry, trust us’ and that’s not good enough anymore,” McGowan said. “The trust has been broken and people want to know what is different.”

Enbridge, based out of Edmonton, Alberta, owned the 40-year-old line, carrying the heavy sour crude from Alberta known as bitumen, oil sands or tar sands. The company declined to make a representative available for interviews for this story.

On a Sunday evening in July, 2010, a six-foot tear opened up in the underground pipe where it intersected with Talmadge Creek, a tiny tributary of the Kalamazoo River near Marshall, Michigan. Over the next 17 hours more than 800,000 gallons of the bitumen, diluted with a chemical slurry to lubricate its transport, spilled into the creek and flowed in the Kalamazoo unabated.

Those first on the scene, in most cases unaware the material released was diluted bitumen, slowly discovered while a sheen of oil covered almost 40 miles of the waterway, the thick, tarry petroleum was heavier than water, sinking and gathering in clumps wherever river water collected. It defied traditional oil recovery methods used by those responding to the spill.

Enbridge paid the billion dollar tab for the clean-up and another $177 million in fines and settlement costs to several state and federal agencies, including compensation for violations of the Clean Water Act. Making the river whole, to use the company’s term, took nearly five years. 

Today testing has shown the water is safe and clear for fishing and canoeing.

(Michigan Radio prepared a timeline of events in the Kalamazoo spill. CLICK HERE.)

While there may be different interpretations of the lessons learned, the broad topics resonate with both proponents and opponents of the Keystone XL project.

“If there is a silver lining from the Marshall incident it is that it showed us areas where we could improve, and we've embraced those areas,” said John Stoody, a lobbyist and spokesperson for the Association of Oil Pipelines (AOPL).

One of the “safety principles” shared in the AOPL 2016 Strategic Plan called on pipeline operators to “learn how they can improve safety from their own experiences and from other pipeline operators.”

Here are four broad areas where the pipeline break in Marshall has lessons for Nebraskans making a decision on the Keystone XL pipeline.


For researchers and environmental scientists in this field of study “this oil spill offers lessons to be learned, in many dimensions that go into how we handle existing pipelines” according to Steve Hamilton, a wetlands biologist with Michigan State University. He studied the ecosystems of southwestern Michigan prior to the incident and assisted the National Academies of Sciences in research about the impact of the spill on the river.


Bituminous sands are dug from surface mines in Alberta, Canada.(Photo: Oil Sands Magazine)

The oil sands are processed to remove clay, sands and water. (Photo: Oil Sands Magazine)

Lighter oils and a mixture of chemicals dilute the Bitumen (known as DilBit by this stage) to allow the thick material to be transported in pipelines. (Photo:TransCanada)

What is bitumen used for? Sand Oil Magazine breaks it down.

Prior to 2010, little research had been done about the behavior of diluted bitumen outside of pipelines and refineries. The Enbridge accident inadvertently turned 40 miles of the Kalamazoo River into an unfortunate research laboratory.

“This is the biggest one and has received the most attention and study, and so I think it inevitably becomes really important when we think about new pipelines and pipeline safety," Hamilton said.

The Michigan Line 6-B and the Keystone XL share one important common trait: both once have or may soon transport diluted bitumen.

“The real, huge comparison is the product that each pipeline carries,” said Beth Wallace, the pipeline specialist with the National Wildlife Federation

“Line 6B carries diluted bitumen,” Wallace said.  “It's a heavy crude oil. That's what will be running through Keystone XL.”

The Association of Oil Pipelines takes the position that the mixture of oil sands and chemicals does not significantly differ from traditional unrefined petroleum.

Spokesperson John Stoody, citing The National Academy of Sciences study done in response to the Kalamazoo spill, claims research “found while it may have originally come from onshore, on the land, and separated from clay and sand, it's really the same type of heavy crude.”

"When it comes to cleaning up heavy crude the same rules apply and should be expected in any emergency response plan as heavy crude,” Stoody said. “Get in there quickly, clean it up, knowing some will evaporate, some will sink, and some will be collected, and gauge your emergency response cleanup efforts appropriately.”

However, The Academy study released last year contradicts Stoody. Among the “Key Findings” listed in the report the researchers found “while immediately following a spill” bitumen and regular heavy crude oil behave in a similar manner, once there is “exposure to the environment,” after the oil sands escape from the pipeline, the “properties of diluted bitumen…differ substantially from those of the other crude oils.”

Spills were called “highly problematic”” because “there are few effective techniques for containment.”

The study went on to recommend new regulations recognizing the differences between ordinary heavy crude and oil sands.

Biologist Steve Hamilton, a contributor to the NAS study, said in an interview with NET News, “this particular kind of oil and its behavior in water is one of the most important things” discovered in the aftermath of the Kalamazoo spill.

“Special vigilance is needed where pipelines cross water bodies where that oil would move away from the site of release readily and get into aquatic environments and potentially sink and become very difficult to recover,” Hamilton said.

There has been no conclusive research on the behavior of diluted bitumen when spilled over or near groundwater, such as the High Plains Aquifer System which includes the Ogallala Aquifer beneath Nebraska.

In a second report, the Academy of Sciences did conclude bitumen did not cause any more wear and tear on pipelines used to transport the material.

That has been a major concern for opponents, who feel the NAS study was narrow and flawed, and call for additional research.


The problems in Michigan began years before oil burst through a six-and-a-half-foot tear in the pipeline.

“There were issues with the pipe itself, and the corrosion and cracking in the pipe, and how that was detected and measured,” Stoody said.

The investigation completed by the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) determined “inadequate” federal regulations allowed Enbridge to use “a lower margin of safety” in its inspections and repairs.

According to the NTSB report, an Enbridge engineering assessment done five years earlier “showed that six crack-like defects ranging in length from 9.3 to 51.6 inches were left in the pipeline, unrepaired, until the July 2010 rupture” creating a gaping rip in the line and through which the oil burst into the nearby stream.



Photo from the NTSB investigation showing Pipeline 6-B after being removed for further analysis.



Pipeline Inspection Gauges (PIGs) are used to inspect pipes from the inside.

TransCanada prepare a PIG for use in a gas pipeline. (Courtesy Photo)


An Enbridge promotional piece highlighting the use of PIGs. (Courtesy Photo)


“What was so shocking was that Enbridge did inspect that section of the line and they knew that it had those cracks five years prior to the release,” said Beth Wallace, the pipeline specialist with the National Wildlife Federation. “They had been granted an extension on repairing some of the cracks and dents that they had discovered along the pipeline” by the United States Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA).

In one specific change, last year the American Petroleum Institute (API) developed new recommendations on assessing how serious cracking and corrosion has become in a stretch of pipeline in response to incidents Kalamazoo.

The pipeline industry insists things are different today, both in the attitude and improved science.

The industry is also relying more heavily on improved technology for “in-line inspections.” Diagnostic robots known as pipeline inspection gauges (PIGs) have evolved since put in regular use 20 years ago. They travel through the pipelines performing the equivalent of MRIs.

“Regulations require and operators perform inspections with smart PIGs,” Stoody of AOPL said. “With that technology, you can detect small startings of corrosion, or small little microscopic cracks that allow operators to go out and perform preventative maintenance.”

During its campaign to get the Keystone pipeline approved, TransCanada has attempted to reassure Nebraska it continues to improve technology. "We have sensors along our oil pipelines the entire way,” says Matthew John, a company spokesperson. “They are sending data back to our control center every five seconds” lessening the potential for an oil sands spill to go undetected.

Some studies indicate technology does not always solve the problem. Last year Reuters News reviewed federal reports on nearly 500 oil pipeline leaks. Only 22 percent were discovered using advanced detection systems. Ninety-nine of the leaks were first reported to authorities by members of the public.

The Reuters’ report cited federal data showing leak detection systems caught small leaks while missing some of the largest. Since 2010, six of the 10 largest pipeline spills in the U.S. were not detected by the high-tech systems.


When the 25 people on duty at the Enbridge oil control center in Alberta heard alarms alerting them to a problem in Line 6-B in Michigan they assumed it was a mistake.

Alarm bells sounded and were ignored. The leak “was not discovered or addressed for over 17 hours,” according to the NTSB.

NTSB Investigation

A segment from the initial investigation report filed by the National Transportation Safety Board.


A training simulator of the Oil Control Center at Enbridge. (Courtesy Photo)

The NTSB investigation, citing “pervasive organizational failures” within the company, spotlighted inadequate training of those staffing the Enbridge control center and failure to recognize a real emergency was underway.

"This investigation identified a complete breakdown of safety at Enbridge. Their employees performed like 'Keystone Kops' and failed to recognize their pipeline had ruptured and continued to pump crude into the environment," said former NTSB Chairman Deborah A.P. Hersman at the time the report was released in 2012.

With indications there were issues at other companies as well, the pipeline industry responded under its own initiative with a program the NTSB applauded for exceeding its requirements for addressing safety issues with management and employees.

TransCanada claims its control center operators “have consistently shown that they are able to notice small detectable changes that could be related to a leak, and can shut down that pipeline within minutes,” according to John.

As part of the voluntary industry-wide review of safety procedures, The Association of Oil Pipelines created a list of recommended changes in safety monitory procedures and training to address potential pipeline failures.  

“It's now a fundamental culture change across the operators, to stop, look and not proceed with operations until they've gotten the all-clear,” Stoody said. “That's a fundamental example of how operators heed the warnings and make sure the operations are safe before they continue.

“The NTSB saw that there were holistic safety improvements that could be made (in how) companies operate their safety programs, and whether they look holistically across their whole company,” Stoody said. “We seized on that opportunity to make improvements in each of these areas.”

Industry-wide the number of pipeline incidents remains stubbornly stable. Data from PHMSA shows over the last five years the yearly average number of pipeline incidents and accidents stood at 650, higher than the number that occurred in 2010 when the spill on the Kalamazoo River was supposed to change everything.

The lesson learned for the environmental community, including Wallace of the NWF, was how “the human factor was so large” in ways that compounded the damage done to the river. “We ended up having a release into a wetland, which traveled a mile down a creek and then 40 miles down the Kalamazoo River, because they were completely unaware of what was happening."


With 20,090 miles of hazardous liquid and natural gas pipelines in Nebraska alone, there’s more reason than the Keystone debate to hope lessons are learned from Michigan and other crude oil spills. Energy reporter Elizabeth McGowan senses there has been progress.

“I think they are more aware that things can go wrong,” McGowan said. "That gets into the culture of safety. Do they have the personnel? Are they investing in the technology to make it as safe as it can be? That is huge.” 



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