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Five Years Later, Michigan Remembers Enbridge's Assault on Kalamazoo River

Campaigners and residents march says 2010 disaster should remain stark reminder of the dangers posed by tar sands

'Enbridge is still a threat to communities in the U.S. and Canada,' tweeted Oil Change International. What happened to the Kalamazoo River 'is proof.' (Photo: Twitter/@PriceofOil)

Hundreds of climate activists and local residents marched in the town of Battle Creek, Michigan on Saturday to mark five years since the rupture of a tar sands oil pipeline operated by the Canada-based Enbridge corporation dumped more than one million gallons of crude into the Kalamazoo River and other waterways – the largest inland oil spill in U.S. history.

In the march that alternated between silence and solemn refrains of chants and songs, those who walked carried banners that read: "We Remember the Kalamazoo" and "Stop the Enbridge Pipeline Invasion."

Participants in the march, and those supporting it from afar, were using the hashtag #RememberTheKalamazoo to document the day's events and reflect on the environmental disaster which has been used as a primary example of the dangers of tar sands:

Articulating why the Kalamazoo spill deserves special recognition, the executive director of the Sierra Club Michael Brune, in a blog post on Friday, explained:

Certainly not because an oil spill is a particularly unusual event. Between 1999 and 2010, Enbridge reported 804 spills of hydrocarbons across all its operations. Sooner or later, if you drill, you spill. But what this first great U.S. tar sands disaster, and its aftermath, have made impossible to ignore is just how dangerous tar sands oil is to humans and the environment.

Within weeks, it was obvious that cleaning up the Kalamazoo would be far more difficult and expensive than anyone had imagined. Tar sands bitumen must be diluted to pump it through pipelines. Prior to the spill, the tar sands industry claimed that this diluted bitumen (dilbit) would float on water rather than sink. They were right, but only for a while. Once the volatile (and toxic) components of the dilbit vaporized, the bitumen sank to the riverbed, mixing with sediment. After several years and hundreds of millions of dollars, Enbridge declared that it had finished the job, only to be forced by the U.S. EPA to do still more dredging. Finally, after five years and a staggering $1.2 billion, the river may look clean, but no one can say for certain how much oil remains trapped in its sediments or what its long-term effects might be.

For residents who were exposed to known carcinogens or who get their drinking water from wells near the river, the fear will never completely go away.

Though Enbridge has said its cleanup operations led to a successful outcome and some local officials have tried to spin the unparalleled tragedy as something that was actually positive for local communities, neither of those lines received endorsement during Saturday's event.

And as Brian Palmer reported this week for for OnEarth:

Enbridge’s bungling began even before the spill. First, the company knew the pipeline was vulnerable by 2005, if not earlier. When the rupture finally came in July 2010, operators dismissed the alarms as a malfunction of the system for 17 hours before finally accepting that the pipeline had failed. Making things worse, six hours after Calhoun County residents were complaining to 911 about the smell of oil, Enbridge employees were still trying to fix the problem by pumping additional oil into the pipeline. In its review of the accident, the National Transportation Safety Board faulted Enbridge’s “culture of deviance” for what happened, pointing out that the response team in the first hours consisted of four local pipeline maintenance employees who were inadequately trained and made a series of bad decisions.

Not only did Enbridge fail to make the EPA’s initial cleanup deadline, it also blew through a series of fallback deadlines across more than four years. Not until late 2014 did the agency finally sign off on the remediation effort, handing the remaining responsibilities to the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality.

As the cleanup winds down, though, there is little cause for celebration. “The Kalamazoo River still isn’t clean,” says [Anthony Swift, director of NRDC’s Canada Project]. “The EPA reached a point where additional cleanup might do more harm than good. Much of the river is still contaminated.”

Meanwhile, local environmentalists feel that a state task force commissioned to guide the cleanup and recovery process, in fact, accomplished little and that five years after the spill Enbridge's operation of other pipelines in the region leaves continue to put residents, waterways, wildlife, and the planet at risk.

"I don’t think we can honestly say we’re any safer from catastrophic oil spills than we were five years ago," said Andy McGlashen, communications director for the Michigan Environmental Council, to the Detroit Free Press. "After all, the same company that caused the Kalamazoo spill is still pumping about 23 million gallons of oil a day through the heart of the Great Lakes. However, we are much more aware of the danger the pipelines pose, and that gives us the opportunity to improve safety."

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