The pipeline of ‘poison’

The aftermath of a tar sands oil spill in Michigan has left a community with sickness, anger, and loss of livelihood.

oiled plants
An underground pipeline owned by Calgary, Alberta-based Enbridge Energy Partners LP, began gushing into the Kalamazoo River area, and the affected area of the river remains closed to this day [GALLO/GETTY]

Deb Miller lives less than 30 metres from the Kalamazoo River in central Michigan, site of one of the largest inland tar sands oil disasters in US history.

In July 2010, nearly four million litres of toxic tar sands crude oil gushed into the river following the rupture of the Lakehead Pipeline 6B belonging to Enbridge Energy Partners, a Canadian oil and gas transportation company.

Meeting with other area residents at the office she owns with her husband on the banks of the Kalamazoo, Miller describes the adverse health effects she has suffered in the wake of the spill, including migraine headaches, burning eyes, a persistent sore throat, and a “cloudy brain” condition that she half-jokingly refers to as “Oil Alzheimer’s”.

The Lakehead Pipeline 6B that burst was built in 1969 to transport regular oil, not tar sands crude – which is as thick as peanut butter and must be injected with chemicals in order to enable transportation.

The Michigan spill is Enbridge Energy’s largest to date in the United States.

Outside the office window, oil cleanup workers wearing white Tyvek suits arrive in a boat, apparently to collect samples from the silvery sheen of the river’s surface.

The river has been closed for over a year.

Rashes and seizures

Despite grave health concerns among the local community, Miller told Al Jazeera that she has yet to receive a visit from her county or state health department.

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Susan Connolly, a paralegal who resides in the nearby town of Marshall, said her children showed signs of exposure immediately after the spill occurred: “My son started vomiting and my daughter got a weird rash five days into it.”

Factory worker Sherri Baldwin, whose house is approximately 100 metres from the Kalamazoo, is also concerned about her children.

“They’ve been sick off and on over the last year,” she told Al Jazeera. “My 12-year-old, David, has been really sick, with rashes all over his body, and his allergies have gotten far worse. My 10-year-old has a rash all over his stomach and back.”

Confirming that her grandson is now using a nebuliser as a result of respiratory difficulties, Baldwin added:

“We are also having problems with our memory. I can’t remember anything anymore. I don’t let my kids go outside anymore because I don’t want them to keep breathing all that crap. My kids are telling me they can’t remember things they did even just a short while ago.”

Nicolas Forte, a 22-year-old construction worker and carpenter who also lives 100 metres from the contaminated river, has meanwhile suffered a total of 43 seizures since the oil spill occurred last July. Forte emphasized to Al Jazeera: “I’ve never had health problems before this. I was in perfect health before the spill.”

A survey conducted by the Michigan Department of Community Health three weeks after the Kalamazoo incident found that 60 per cent of nearby residents were experiencing headaches, vomiting, respiratory troubles and other health problems due to the spill.

Enbridge’s CV

Enbridge has a long history of spills throughout both the US and Canada.

According to Ottawa-based advocacy group the Polaris Institute, Enbridge is responsible for 610 spills – involving more than 22 million litres of oil – between 1999 and 2008. This is approximately half the amount of oil spilled during the Exxon Valdez disaster in Alaska in 1989.

Less than two months after the 6B rupture, an Enbridge pipeline leak near Chicago brought on a civil suit against the company by the state of Illinois, which alleged that Enbridge endangered public health and created a public nuisance.

President and CEO of Enbridge, Patrick Daniel (C) listens as he waits for his turn to testify during a hearing before the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee September 15, 2010 on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC [GALLO/GETTY]

Around this same time, the Wisconsin Department of Justice announced that Enbridge had agreed to settle another lawsuit for $1m over air pollution violations at a storage terminal in the city of Superior. The firm had already pledged to pay $1,100,000 to the state of Wisconsin to settle environmental claims regarding its failure to obtain and abide by permits governing its construction of pipelines through wetlands and waterways.

That a semblance of justice is often more difficult to come by is clear, however, from testimony by citizens whose lives and livelihoods have been harmed by Enbridge’s activities.

Consider, for example, the Kalamazoo corn and soybean farmer who described the aftermath of the spill to Al Jazeera as follows: “I would be in my fields and could taste the chemicals, and I began to feel nauseous and shortness of breath.”

The farmer, who wished to remain anonymous for personal reasons, explained while coughing:

“I gave Enbridge the paperwork they asked for about how I was being affected, both physically and with my crops, and they ‘lost’ my paperwork. The Enbridge guy I was working with was transferred to Australia, and now I’m going to have least $300,000 of losses in crops from not being able to irrigate them.”

As for Enbridge’s cleanup efforts in the area, Dr Stephen Hamilton – professor of Ecosystem Ecology and Biogeochemistry at Michigan State University and president of the board of the Kalamazoo River Watershed Council – criticised the company’s cosmetic approach and its focus on merely disappearing the most visible effects of the disaster, like sheen.

At a meeting with Watershed Council members, Hamilton told Al Jazeera:

“Public involvement and transparency has been lacking, and we know this because we [the Council] were an environmental advisor in the cleanup effort. We can’t tell you who [at Enbridge] is making the decisions, and what information they have, because they only tell us what they want us to know.”

Noting that the Kalamazoo spill “has totally fouled the river environment and floodplain, as the river was out of its bank and flooding when the spill occurred”, Hamilton also expressed frustration at how Enbridge’s lack of transparency is impeding a clear assessment of the disaster’s impact on area wildlife.

Mike Murray, staff scientist for the Great Lakes Regional Centre of the National Wildlife Federation (NWF), meanwhile warned of oil’s chronic effects on ecosystems:

“I have a big concern with longer term impacts from the chemicals in the oil, like polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, [which] tend to be larger molecules and more persistent and can bio-accumulate in the food web and cause harmful effects to fish and wildlife, reproduction, and other problems.”

Al Jazeera asked Enbridge if the company would comment on safety concerns many people have about their operating practices, as well as for additional information (beyond what has already been provided to the public) about what the company is doing to prevent future spills.

Enbridge refused to be interviewed.

Government response?

Robert Whitesides, a board member of the Watershed Council, blames the state of Michigan for simply parroting Enbridge’s own assessments of the disaster.

Instead of acting independently, Whitesides told Al Jazeera, the state “started issuing reports generated by Enbridge”.

Enbridge refused to be interviewed by Al Jazeera [EPA]

A number of residents have additionally accused the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) of acting as little more than an apologist for the energy transportation company, and have criticised both Enbridge and the government for what was widely perceived as an inept response to the spill.

According to Murray of the NWF, “[t]here was lack of government and company preparedness … There were definitely a lot of breakdowns [with regards to] implementation [of the response plan] – finding the oil, assessing the size of the spill and allowing independent entities to come in and provide more accurate information.”

Todd Heywood, a senior reporter who has been covering the Kalamazoo spill for the Michigan Messenger, remarked to Al Jazeera:

“Enbridge did not give the EPA and other emergency responders the proper MSDS [Material Safety Data Sheets] to respond to until about a week after the spill. There should have been an immediate mandatory evacuation order, but that didn’t happen because Enbridge didn’t give them the proper information.”

County Health Officer Jim Rutherford told Al Jazeera that the county response was slowed down by the fact that air-monitoring canisters had to be brought up from the Gulf of Mexico, site of the then recent BP oil spill. Beth Wallace, the Community Outreach Regional Coordinator for the NWF, meanwhile took issue with Enbridge’s distribution of a waiver for area residents to sign if they desired air purifiers for their home or business, which included a pledge not to sue the company.

Wallace added that the purifiers did not actually do anything for air purivfication or the chemicals found around the spill sites, and that Enbridge had bought them from Walmart.

“The other issue I had was with Enbridge asking folks to sign these forms is that they were targeting lower income coummunities and residents that had no other means to help themselves,” Wallace added. “Anyone that signed these waivers would void themselves from future compensation from Enbridge after receiving basic survival necesities.”

Heywood also criticised the EPA and the Michigan Department of Community Health for their relative lack of concern when EPA tests revealed a presence of heavy metals along the mouth of the Kalamazoo, largely in the pockets of submerged oil that formed as a result of the spill. Warned Heywood: “[T]hose heavy metals stay within the bio-system.”

As for accusations of EPA lenience vis-a-vis Enbridge, EPA incident commander Ralph Dollhopf indeed had nothing but positive things to say in an interview with Al Jazeera about the company’s response to the disaster. Asserted Dollhopf:

“Their actions reflect an acknowledgement of the severity of the discharge, they take our orders seriously, and they are maintaining a strong workforce of between 600 and 700 people, with a high of around 2,500. They appear to be committed to cleaning up the spill.”

Significantly, while escorting Al Jazeera through the security checkpoint to the interview with Dollhopf, EPA Community Involvement Coordinator Don de Blasio specified that the agency would not be able to answer any questions pertaining to the human health impact of the Enbridge spill.

Enbridge itself refused to be interviewed or to provide precise information addressing specific questions about what the company is doing to prevent future spills.

Precedents, parallels, future prospects

Dr Riki Ott, a toxicologist and survivor of the Exxon Valdez disaster in Alaska, is much less reluctant to speculate as to the effects of manmade disasters on human life.

“Tar sands crude oil is 10 times more toxic than regular crude oil,” Ott explained to Al Jazeera. “So of course, we’re seeing the same health problems in those exposed to the chemicals in the oil in Michigan as we are seeing in those exposed to BP’s oil in the Gulf of Mexico.”

Al Jazeera has spoken with dozens of victims of the April 2010 BP oil spill, such as Paul Doom, a 22-year-old from Navarre, Florida, who became extremely ill after swimming in the Gulf. His symptoms, which resemble those reported by the residents of Kalamazoo, have included two to five seizures per day, severe headaches, internal bleeding, nosebleeds, bleeding from the ears, diarrhea, paralysis in the left leg and arm and failing vision.

“I’ve had two blood tests for Volatile Organic Compounds which are in BP’s oil and dispersants, and they both came back with alarmingly high levels,” Doom told Al Jazeera.

John Gooding, a resident of Pass Christian, Mississippi, meanwhile stated: “I can’t live at my home address anymore because it’s too close to the coast … [T]here is a constant steady chemical smell coming off the Gulf. Even both my dogs had seizures and died.”

Gooding himself also experiences seizures and suffers from various respiratory and other health problems. Although chemicals used in oil dispersants have been found in his blood as well, the claim he filed with BP in the hopes of obtaining compensation has been denied.

Gooding recently travelled to Washington, DC to protest the construction of the Keystone XL Pipeline, which – if approved by US President Barack Obama – would transport tar sands oil from Alberta, Canada to Texas.

‘TransCanada claims they can detect and shut down a leak in six minutes, but the Michigan pipeline rupture gushed tar sands oil for 12 hours before it was detected’ [GALLO/GETTY]

He commented to Al Jazeera: “I was telling those people living near the proposed pipeline, ‘We are your future, because when you have oil spills, this is what your life is going to look like’.”

Given that tar sands crude is more corrosive than regular oil and is thus far more likely to cause spills, Gooding’s prophecy is entirely credible.

Keystone XL and the environment

One cause for concern among opponents of the Keystone XL pipeline is its potential to leak into and damage the Ogallala Aquifer, which supplies 78 per cent of the public water supply in Nebraska and one-third of all the water used for irrigation in the US.

John Stansbury, a professor of environmental engineering at the University of Nebraska, recently warned in an independent risk analysis of the pipeline:

“Even a small, undetected leak from an underground rupture of the pipeline in the Nebraska Sandhills could pollute almost five billion gallons of groundwater with benzene at concentrations exceeding safe drinking water levels.”

Twenty of the top scientists in the US recently sent the Obama administration a letter outlining how the Keystone XL pipeline constitutes an environmental disaster from a climate change perspective, while Jim Hansen, NASA’s chief climate scientist, has said that if the tar sands are tapped heavily for oil, it will be “essentially game over for the climate”.

On October 5, the Center for Biological Diversity and other environmental groups sued the US State Department and US Fish and Wildlife Service to halt what they termed “illegal construction” on the pipeline.

Meanwhile, Robert Whitesides of the Watershed Council in Kalamazoo recently remarked to Al Jazeera: “TransCanada claims they can detect and shut down a leak in six minutes, but the Michigan pipeline rupture gushed tar sands oil for 12 hours before it was detected.”

Pro-pipeline attitude at the State Department?

The environmental uproar has somewhat obscured debate over the purpose of the 2,740km, $7bn Keystone XL project, proposed by the Canadian oil and gas company TransCanada and sold to the American public as a means to reducing dependence on foreign oil.

According to the watchdog group Oil Change International, oil demand in the US has in fact dropped due to the economic crisis, and, for the first time since 1970, domestic oil production is up as a result of shale oil production in North Dakota and Texas. Noting that TransCanada has already secured contracts with companies that are openly planning to export oil – such as Valero, Motiva, and Total – Oil Change International observes that TransCanada’s actual intention is to refine the tar sands oil into diesel fuel in order to ship it to the European market, where demand is high.

In a report entitled “Exporting Energy Security: Keystone XL Exposed“, the group predicts: “The construction of the Keystone XL will not lessen dependence on foreign oil – rather, it will feed the growing trend of exporting refined products out of the United States, thereby doing nothing to enhance energy security or to stabilize oil prices or gasoline prices at the pump. If completed, it will successfully achieve a long term objective of Canadian tar sands producers – access to export markets beyond the US.”

The environmental group Friends of the Earth has, via a Freedom of Information Act request, obtained internal emails revealing amicable ties between a State Department official and a top lobbyist for TransCanada. According to Friends of the Earth, the documents are “deeply disturbing” and indicate “pro-pipeline bias and complicity at the State Department”, which oversees TransCanada’s application to build the pipeline.

Further evidence of bias might be detected in the State Department’s final Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) for Keystone XL, issued in August, which acknowledged the adverse impact of oil spills on wildlife:

“Some of the possible toxic effects include direct mortality, interference with feeding or reproductive capacity, disorientation, reduced resistance to disease, tumours, reduction or loss of various sensory perceptions, and interference with metabolic, biochemical, and genetic processes.”

A far rosier conclusion was, however, reached with regard to human immunity from oil spill damage:

“Crude oil spills are not likely to have toxic effects on the general public because of the many restrictions that local, state and federal agencies impose to avoid environmental exposure after a spill.”

Susan Connelly provided testimony at a State Department public hearing on October 7 that drew attention to a coalition of landowners, conservationists, indigenous peoples, national security experts and religious leaders who urged US President Barack Obama to reject the pipeline proposal.

Because the Keystone XL pipeline project involves crossing the US border, it requires a Presidential Permit.

The final say on whether to build the pipeline rests with President Obama. His decision is expected before the end of the year.

Follow Dahr Jamail on Twitter: @DahrJamail

Source: Al Jazeera