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Five-Year Anniversary of Kalamazoo Spill Reminds Us of the Dangers Tar Sands Present to Our Communities

Oil and water flows down Ceresco Dam as oil spill clean up continues along the Kalamazoo River in Ceresco, Mich. on Thursday, July 29, 2010 (Photo: Andre J. Jackson/Detroit Free Press)

Five years ago, on July 25, 2010, an estimated 843,000 gallons of tar sands oil spilled from an Enbridge-owned pipeline into the Kalamazoo River watershed in Calhoun County, Michigan. The tar sands spill forced residents out of their homes and caused extensive health impacts. Meanwhile, because it is heavier than conventional crude, much of the spilled tar sands oil sank, leading to a four-year effort that became the costliest inland oil spill cleanup in U.S. history. On the fifth anniversary of this tragedy, communities and activists are coming together at a "Remember Kalamazoo" event in Battle Creek, Michigan, to stand in solidarity with those harmed by the spill and to take a stand against the expansion of tar sands into other communities.

The Kalamazoo River tar sands spill was devastating to both communities and wildlife. The contamination stretched almost forty miles along the river. Around sixty homes were evacuated for more than three weeks, and businesses shut down--some permanently. In the months following the spill, a Michigan-commissioned survey found that more than half of residents in four communities along the contaminated portion of the river suffered health impacts, such as headaches, respiratory illnesses, and nausea. Fish populations were decimated, and thousands of turtles, birds, and mammals impacted. The spill from Enbridge's pipeline, Line 6B, became the costliest inland oil spill cleanup in U.S. history, with a tab exceeding $1 billion. Much of the river remains contaminated even today since full remediation would have simply caused additional damage to the river's ecosystem. 

The Kalamazoo spill also confirmed a dirty truth about tar sands oil: it can sink. The bitumen in tar sands oil is heavier than conventional crude, causing it to sink. This rendered traditional cleanup equipment and methods useless, and response crews were entirely unprepared for the scope and nature of the cleanup. As Mark Durno, a deputy incident commander for the EPA stated, "Submerged oil is what makes this thing more unique than even the Gulf of Mexico situation. Yes that was huge--but they knew the beast they were dealing with. This experience was brand new for us. It would have been brand new for anyone in the United States."

It was not until the fall of 2014--more than four years after the spill--that Enbridge completed its cleanup obligations, which included dredging the river to recover the sunken oil and uprooting trees. The river's ecosystem is still not the same, and sections are still contaminated.

This weekend, the "Remember Kalamazoo" commemoration will emphasize the need to "build communities, not pipelines." Events will include workshops on stopping tar sands and pipelines from threatening more communities, a "Healing Walk" to the Kalamazoo River, and local gatherings in support of keeping communities healthy. This anniversary is a reminder of the dangers of tar sands oil and the need to stop the expansion of more pipelines, such as Keystone XL, that threatens cities and towns across the country. The fight against tar sands is a fight for protecting communities, homes, and livelihoods. The Kalamazoo spill was a wake-up call to the full dangers that tar sands oil presents. It's time that we remember the Kalamazoo once more and put the health of our citizens—not the interests of the tar sands industry—first.

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Jennifer Skene

Jennifer Skene is Ford Fellow at Natural Resources Defense Council. She works with the Canada Project to protect both communities and wildlife from environmental harms such as tar sands mining and seismic testing.

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