Nearly a decade after one of the largest inland oil spills in U.S. history, the landscape has changed.
By Joseph Riesterer
Cheryl Vosburg still gets emotional thinking about the day after Enbridge Energy Partners’ Line 6B ruptured just west of Marshall, Michigan on July 25, 2010, causing the second-largest inland oil spill in American history. That afternoon, Vosburg, the chief of Marshall’s one-person environmental department, drove seven miles west of Marshall to Ceresco, a neighboring community on the floodplains of the Kalamazoo River.
“The river was in flood stage,” she said, recalling her view from the 11 Mile Road bridge near the Ceresco Dam, “and it was just black oil from shore to shore, as far as you could see in every direction. The water was just roaring, and the oil was then up over the banks. It was very overwhelming. I really thought, standing there, that that was going to make its way to Lake Michigan.”
Today, almost a decade after she stood on the bridge, the waters here do anything but roar. The dam is gone. Only its skeleton remains on the river’s northern bank. The banks of the river at the dam’s old site have been sculpted, now falling into the river at manufactured right angles. Here, river otters graze the water’s placid surface while swimming about the stalks of reeds, and trout dance beneath them. Without knowing what stood here before 2010, one might look across the nearby 12 Mile Road bridge and see a sanctuary.
The site is a product of Enbridge’s response to the spill—spanning six years and racking up a $1.2 billion price tag consisting of settlements, fines, and clean up fees. Their efforts have helped stabilize aquatic life and created new opportunities for river recreation, offering potential lessons for managing environmental disasters. But the 6B spill upended the lives of those living near the river and caused permanent changes to the surrounding environment. Without more rigid governmental pipeline regulation, Michigan remains at risk for another preventable disaster, and the corresponding shock to ecological systems.
Marshall is a west Michigan city laid out in the 1830s, home to only about seven thousand people, one of the few places where one still smells the perfume of burning wood on every corner. The city’s center is a historical district filled with early nineteenth century homes and churches. Beyond it, much of the land is rural. The Kalamazoo River is wide here, about fifteen feet, snaking its way in wide turns westward to Lake Michigan.
Running under and through the town is an Enbridge Energy oil pipeline formerly called Line 6B. Installed in 1969, the 6B pipeline runs 293 miles between Griffith, Indiana, and Sarnia, Ontario. It’s part of Enbridge’s nearly two thousand miles of pipeline crisscrossing America dubbed the Lakehead System, monitored in Edmonton. At the time of its failure in Marshall, Line 6B carried twelve million gallons of oil per day. According to Kenneth Kornheiser, president of the Kalamazoo River Watershed Council, the pipe carried “an amount of oil that’s frankly not something we can comprehend.”
On that July day, technicians deactivated the pipe for a planned ten-hour shutdown for maintenance. That shutdown would ultimately grow into a two-month freeze on 6B’s operation after the spill. The failed pipe was wrapped in one layer of polyethylene tape, meant to prevent corrosion from soil loads, moisture level fluctuations, and electrical charges. But at the point of rupture, the tape had disbonded, causing corrosion and cracks underneath that ultimately led to a rupture.
It took the energy company seventeen hours to notice the spill. As the pipeline discharged, more than twenty thousand barrels—843,000 gallons—of oil flowed directly into Talmadge Creek, a tributary that carried the oil into the Kalamazoo River. Marshall residents began to notice a smell creeping through the town.
More than three hours after the rupture, a resident made the first 911 call about the odor of gas, but dispatched firefighters were unable to locate the source. The pipeline’s rupture hemorrhaged through the night. By eleven the following morning, the odor was strong enough to give another caller a headache. Finally, an unrelated utility worker spotted oil pouring into the creek and notified Enbridge around 11:15 a.m. The company closed the pipe at the site of the rupture.
Soon afterward, Vosburg got word of the spill and drove down to Talmadge Creek on Division Drive. She was astonished to discover that the low-flow creek, which at times carried almost no water, “was flowing pretty heavy with just nothing but black oil.”
Before the spill, there had been warnings about the state of the 6B pipeline. Three pipeline inspections in the five years before 2010 marked a defect at the point of 6B’s ultimate failure, though the defect wasn’t deemed severe enough by the National Hazardous Materials Administration to require repairs at the time. However, other parts of the line did. The year of the spill, the line had more than three hundred identified anomalies requiring repair.
In fact, Enbridge had requested a two-year extension on repairs from the Department of Transportation just ten days before the spill. In 2009, fewer than forty of the three hundred defects flagged for repair were corrected within a half-year deadline.
Despite needing repair, the pipeline continued to operate, since the government’s safety requirements didn’t go beyond minimum standards. According to Dan MacFarlane, a professor of environmental history at Western Michigan University, standards are lax because “transnational corporation[s] control their own regulations.” Money talks; oil and gas had the fifth-highest lobbying total across industry in 2018. Even high-profile spills haven’t been enough to change this. The Kalamazoo River spill took place just months after the BP’s Deepwater Horizon drilling rig infamously leeched oil into the Gulf of Mexico for three months. Deepwater’s well was capped ten days before 6B’s rupture.
The Ceresco Dam served as an ally to Enbridge during post-spill cleanup in 2010. Its structure forged a barrier solid enough to slow downstream flow of the oil, creating an upstream pond where oil could accumulate and be recovered. But this accumulation proved fatal to the dam itself. To remove the stockpiled oil mixed with sediment in the river’s bed here, Enbridge reshaped the river, eliminating the dam and exposing blackened riverbeds on each side. Each shore was then dredged, leaving behind tidy riverbanks.
This didn’t look like a conventional oil spill response, and that’s because the problem wasn’t conventional oil. Floating booms and skimmers are typically used for the mitigation of crude oil spills, but the 6B spill required more. Line 6B carried diluted bitumen, dilbit for short. Dilbit is a tar sands oil, a viscous petroleum reserve like asphalt. Mixing it with a gaseous petroleum source—in this case natural gas—allows for easier transport. Otherwise, the bitumen is too thick for moving with pipelines.
Dilbit’s unique interaction with water wasn’t fully understood at the time of the spill. In fact, the EPA hadn’t handled a response to the substance before Kalamazoo. The dilute used to make dilbit is full of gaseous molecules like benzene which, after the spill, evaporated into the surrounding air, causing health risks and forcing nearby residents to evacuate. Bitumen is heavier than crude oil, which means that rather than remain on the surface, like crude oil, it sinks to the bottom and binds to the sediment. “People who have to come in and work are now at risk and you have to do something to help them with the proper ventilation equipment, skin and hand covering, and clothing,” said Kornheiser.
In all, thirty-four miles of the river that Kornheiser paddled his canoe in daily were closed to recreation for cleanup efforts; much of this section remained closed for two years, some sections for longer.
Because the river was in flood stage at the time of the spill, high water levels carried oil into the floodplains, reaching into surrounding wetlands and augmenting property loss. Enbridge offered to buy hundreds of homes near the river from owners who worried their property values would be affected by the spill. In all, the corporation purchased 154 properties along the river, many of which were temporarily filled with cleanup workers. Today, the company owns no homes in the area, according to Ryan Duffy, an Enbridge spokesperson.
On the ground in Marshall, the spill brought changes to every resident’s life. With fifteen hundred cleanup workers from the country on site within the initial few days, the town’s population ballooned. Vosburg remembers personnel and airboats arriving from the Gulf of Mexico following Deepwater Horizon’s spill that ceased just weeks earlier. Some contractors were even staying at nearby campgrounds, she said. In her own work, dealing with the spill became “at least a daily obligation” for the first few months as she attended frequent meetings with the EPA, the state’s environmental agency, Enbridge, and others.
The EPA declared initial cleanup complete in September 2010, about two months after the break. By then, 760,000 gallons had been removed from the river. Two years later, much of the closed stretch of river was reopened to the public. In October 2014, the last stage of cleanup was declared complete and the EPA pulled out. Around five percent of the oil was deemed irremovable by dredging without destruction of habitat in floodplain areas like Mill Pond or the Morrow Dam.
Since the spill, Enbridge has worked to repair its relationship with affected cities, partially by devoting resources to making the river accessible for public use. Since 2010, the company has commissioned five public river access sites. Still, scars from the spill remain. Wetland areas surrounding Talmadge Creek were flattened by equipment.
The riverbed will never be fully cleansed of bitumen. Many areas couldn’t be preserved: Enbridge’s response redesigned the river, and dams like that in Ceresco were bought and subsequently removed by the corporation. (Environmental advocates had wanted to see the Ceresco Dam removed for years, though local historians complained.) Some black rings remain on trees from high water levels, one of the few remaining visible markers of the spill.
The spill hasn’t stopped Enbridge’s pipelines from flowing. Less than two weeks before leaving office in January, outgoing Governor Rick Synder approved Enbrige’s proposal to replace part of Line 5, from Superior, WI, to Sarnia, Ontario, with a new pipeline in a tunnel. This will allow the line’s operation to continue for a century. The sixty-six-year-old pipeline runs beneath the Straits of Mackinac, between Lakes Michigan and Huron. Environmentalists opposed to the new tunnel, which would cover the portion of the pipeline under the Straits of Mackinac, say the proposal would still allow a pipeline to remain in the water too long.
Despite pipelines’ threat to the natural environment, MacFarlane, the Western Michigan University professor, finds it hard to envision a future without them, given our culture’s “addiction to oil.” He noted that few methods exist for oil transportation, all of them more hazardous than pipelines. Ryan Duffy the spokesperson for Enbridge, argued that the state needs Line 5. Half of the propane usage in the Upper Peninsula, mainly for heating homes, is supplied by natural gas from Line 5, he said. (Some environmental and independent groups dispute that number.) A third of the line’s oil is sent to Detroit refineries.
But the pipeline’s redevelopment has been contested even following its approval. In March, Michigan Attorney General Dana Nessel ruled the redevelopment’s approval—which came just days before Rick Snyder’s final day in office—unconstitutional. In light of the ruling, Michigan’s current governor, Gretchen Whitmer, recently halted work on the new tunnel.
Whitmer has yet to make a final decision on the tunnel’s legitimacy, and has been negotiating with the company to attempt to settle the dispute. Nessel, who campaigned on shutting down the pipeline, has been clear on her goal to remove it from the 4.5 mile stretch of Lake Michigan’s water; at the end of June she filed a lawsuit to shut it down completely.
Following 6b’s catastrophic failure and the ensuing EPA settlements, Enbridge claims to have revamped their monitoring practices. Today, each employee of the company gets a ring made from the removed section of Line 6B as an inescapable reminder. But governmental regulation as it is still does not require corporations to have a culture of perfection. Instead, corporations with hundreds of defects on their infrastructure file legal documents to delay the repairs. And even after the spill, the 6B pipeline was re-certified and running again within two months. Oil continues to pulse through the state. The landscape, meanwhile, remains permanently changed. ■
Joseph Riesterer is a student from Ann Arbor finishing his undergraduate work in English at the University of Michigan. When he’s not in school, you’ll likely find him on his bike, reading eco poetry on a bench, or hiking somewhere he can catch a glimpse of mountains.
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