Ruptured Oil Pipe Sends 877,000 Gallons of Crude Oil into Kalamazoo River, Threatening People and Wildlife

You could call it "the other oil spill."

Not two weeks after BP pronounced the beginning of the end of oil leaking into the Gulf, a ruptured pipe in southwest Michigan sent at least 877,000 gallons of crude oil pouring into the Kalamazoo River. The spill is believed to be the largest in the history of the Midwest.

More than an uneasy echo of the Gulf Coast debacle, the Midwest spill carries with it unique stakes: the contaminated river feeds into Lake Michigan about 60 miles west of the leaking pipe, which in turn is part of the Great Lakes basin, holding twenty percent of the earth's freshwater. Michigan, itself has more miles of freshwater shoreline than any state or nation in the world. While cleanup crews hope to contain the spill before it reaches the coast of a particularly precious resource, efforts were challenged by this week's rain, falling on a river that is already running high and fast.

"The river is already near flood levels, and if more rain comes, it will be trouble. Rainfall is not our friend," Mary Dettloff, spokesperson for Michigan's Department of Natural Resources and Environment, told AlterNet.

Danielle Korpalski, the Midwest regional outreach coordinator for the National Wildlife Federation, told AlterNet that the number one priority is containing the oil before it reaches Lake Michigan.

"It's already bad enough to be destroying the Kalamazoo River. We have to stop it before it reaches the lake and causes a lot more problems," Korpalski said.

Also downstream from the spill is a federal Superfund site. While the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, which is coordinating cleanup, attempted to keep oil from the site, reports indicated that the spill reached it by Wednesday evening.

While a foul stench thickens the air, thirty households have been relocated. Dead fish are floating in the river and oil-soaked Canada geese are struggling to survive. The Michigan Department of Agriculture issued an advisory against using the Kalamazoo River for irrigation and livestock, and the EPA is testing both surface water and air quality. Officials indicate that drinking water is not affected, and it is offering no warnings to residents against using the tap.  However, in the heart of summer, high temperatures make it more likely that oil will evaporate into benzene. If people breathe this chemical in for an extended period off time, they are susceptible to poisoning that disrupts normal blood processes.

Bonnie Jo Campbell, author of  American Salvage, lives near the site of the spill. She toured it Wednesday morning, including at the 35th Street Bridge, near the point on Morrow Lake where authorities hoped to contain the spill.  By that evening, oil passed this point.

"I didn't see that anything (relating to cleanup) had happened. No one was there but a news van waiting for something to happen," Campbell told AlterNet.

She added that she is uncertain about the potential success of cleanup efforts, given that, "there's a strong current (and) the oil swirls around. It's not floating on top like in the Gulf."

The pipeline is owned and operated by Enbridge, Inc., a Calgary-based company that has shut down the 30-inch-wide pipe, but has stated that it doesn't know what caused the spill. The Lakehead pipeline stretches from Alberta to Quebec, spanning 1,900 miles. Part of one of the largest oil pipeline systems in the world, it carries crude oil to refineries throughout the U.S. Midwest and eastern Canada. Because it crosses international lines, the federal government regulates it. For this reason, the National Transportation Safety Board is taking the lead on the investigation into the oil spill's cause.

"Enbridge takes every incident very seriously and we're treating this situation as a top priority. No one was injured," states Enbridge on the webpage it set up in response to the incident.

While Enbridge president and CEO Patrick Daniel said that the pipeline would reopen in "a matter of days," the company was today issued a Corrective Action Order by the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration, which ordered the pipeline to remain shutdown until it undergoes a comprehensive safety assessment.

President Barack Obama has been briefed on the spill and White House spokesperson Matt Lehrich promises help to the region. Senator Carl Levin (D -- Michigan) issued a statement that indicates that his office is talking to federal agencies "to make sure that those carrying out the cleanup have all the resources they need." However, Sen. Levin emphasized that the Enbridge should bear the costs of cleanup and to compensate people who suffered damages resulting from the disaster.

Cleanup crews -- most of them hired by Enbridge -- have recovered about 45,000 gallons of oil so far, according to Mary Detloff. A contingent from the U.S. Coast Guard is expected later this week. Both Enbridge and Detloff said there were plans today to install 10 oil containment booms, in addition to 10 booms already in place, most of these in Calhoun County -- but Michigan Governor Jennifer Granholm countered this in a press briefing Wednesday evening.


"That simply was not true," the governor said about the claims. She said there were only eight booms on the river yesterday, and the officials have only placed another five today. 

Enbridge has also said it has doubled its cleanup efforts, dedicating 200 employees to the work. Gov. Granholm suggested that the numbers supplied by Enbridge may be inflated, saying that she has "a healthy degree of skepticism both on (Enbridge's) actions and what we have heard." Enbridge is also maintaining that the amount of spilled oil is lower than others are estimating; it suggests 789,000 gallons have spilt.

"From my perspective, the response has been anemic," Gov. Granholm said, as quoted in The Detroit Free Press. "I worry that we were undersold about the amount of crude that was released." In a press briefing, Gov. Granholm added that the response of both the EPA and Enbridge has been "wholly inadequate" and emphasized that if the oil reaches Lake Michigan, "it would be a tragedy of historic proportions."

Indeed, U.S. Representative Mark Schauer (D -- Bedford Township) is challenging Enbridge for delaying official notification of the spill. Enbridge didn't report the incident until 1:30 pm EST, at least three hours after the spill was confirmed. Enbridge president and CEO Patrick Daniels said publicly that the company was aware of the spill at 10:30 am EST. There are also questions about 911 logs from the previous evening, showing that residents were reporting the odor, according to The Detroit Free Press.

Rep. Schauer held a press conference on the riverbank Wednesday, in which he slammed Enbridge's slow response. He said he is introducing legislation to define "immediate notification" in the requirements of federal law, beyond the current standard of the "earliest practicable moment." Rep. Schauer, who serves on the House subcommittee of on Railroads, Pipelines and Hazardous Materials, wants this regulation to require notification within one hour, with a fine of $250,000 as a penalty. He is also considering legislation that will raise the fine for a series of delayed notifications from the current $1 million to $2.5 million.

As the conversation heats up about climate and energy reforms that are an essential response to the Gulf Coast spill, the "other oil spill" in Michigan pushes the point to a crisis, revealing how deep comprehensive environmental reforms have to go to be fully effective. For starters, the Great Lakes Basin Compact, a binding agreement of eight states that became state and federal law in 2008, must integrate environmental regulations. Currently, the compact addresses commodification and diversion concerns for the massive freshwater supply, but has little in the way of environmental protection or regulation. While Congress instituted a drilling ban for the Great Lakes in 2005, many have been pushing to lift it … and today's incident reveals that it's not just drilling that presents a threat. Danielle Korpalski of the National Wildlife Federation said that, coincidentally, the NWF is releasing a report this week that makes the connections among oil spills throughout the U.S.

"This isn't just one incident anymore," Korpalski said. "We need to move to clean energy and get away from dirty fuels."

For now, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is attempting to create a center to clean wildlife harmed by the Michigan oil spill. Mary Dotloff indicated that a collaborative information center may be set up in Lansing, in coordination with the Michigan State Police, to ensure that information about the spill stays current and accurate. There is also a hotline set up for people to call if they have information or concerns about the spill (800-306-6837). The Red Cross is offering refuge to those who need to get away from the fumes, but can't afford a hotel room. And an overwhelming number of volunteers are calling the hotline and showing up to the Michigan shoreline, ready to help with anything they can. This, even while carrying the personal impact of the spill.

"I was out there talking to people today, and people are really devastated," Korpalski said. "It's tough to articulate to the public just how awful it is. The smell itself is so awful, so pungent."

If ever there was a moment for local, state, and federal environmentalism to transcend its default role as a crisis-response strategy, and instead to become integrated as an intentional and celebrated way of life -- it is now.

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