Who wants to hang out at the tar sands oily river? EPA to reopen parts of the still oiled Kalamazoo River
Nearly 2 years ago, more than one million gallons of tar sands oil gushed out of Enbridge’s Line 6B into the Kalamazoo River. Today, EPA is planning to announce the reopening of a larger stretch of the still oiled Kalamazoo River, despite the fact that there is an unknown amount of tar sands oil still in the river and cleanup efforts are ongoing. Tar sands diluted bitumen is much more challenging to clean up than conventional oil, because the heavy bitumen becomes submerged, so there is still a significant amount of oil left in the river that clean-up crews are trying to recover. It is unclear how long this clean-up will take, because nobody really knows how to clean up tar sands oil. In addition to being a clear environmental problem, residents of Marshall, Michigan and other towns near the oiled river have faced public health problems; the spill has been problematic for local businesses as well. Enbridge claims the oil in the river is not hazardous. The tar sands oil that now permeates the Kalamazoo river environment is clearly hazardous to the environment and local wildlife. Frankly, there are still questions about the impact of tar sands on human health. An announcement reopening the river to the public could very well send the wrong message that all is well on the Kalamazoo River.
Today, EPA and other environmental, health and safety agencies are announcing a reopening of additional sections of the river. Approximately 35 miles of the river were closed after the spill. In April, EPA reopened a 3 mile section of the river. While it is understandable that government agencies would like people to be able to use their recreation area, it does not make sense to reopen the Kalamazoo River while a major clean-up is still underway. In fact, just last month, the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality issued a public notice which detailed Enbridge’s proposed techniques to continue recovering tar sands oil. The notice reads that “The applicant specifically proposes to mechanically or hydraulically agitate the river sediment at various locations as a means of liberating oil attached to sediment for collection at the water surface.” This technique would be used on 390 acres of the river, and “Liberated oil will be collected within containment booms or other sorbents at the water surface or within temporarily installed submerged sediment traps at various locations along the water.” What this means is that there is still tar sands oil in the river in an area estimated to cover as much as 390 acres.
Further, there are still fish advisories. Last May, the Michigan government posted a notice indicating that “the Michigan Department of Community Health’s ‘do not eat’ advisory for all fish caught in Talmadge Creek or the Kalamazoo River to the west end of Morrow Lake continues. Fish are being tested for chemicals. MDCH will update the advisory as more information is gathered.” The swimming and fishing advisory still is advising that people not eat fish from or touch or swim in Talmadge Creek or the Kalamazoo River.
Opening the river to the public likely sends the wrong message to the public that there are no environmental or public health concerns. The studies carried out about the safety of the river have been inadequate, and there is still a significant and undetermined quantity of tar sands oil left in the river. Last August, the Michigan Department of Community Health published a study indicating that coming in contact with submerged oil remaining in the environment was not a risk to human health. However, as outlined by an NWF critique, the agency failed to make a risk assessment for eight chemicals in the submerged oil, and the study does not analyze the risks of breathing vapors from the residual oil, eating fish from the river, coming in contact with surface water.
Local residents are unhappy with the situation, and with today’s upcoming announcement. Susan Connolly, a locally affected resident and mother, says, “The first word that comes to mind regarding the decision to reopen the river is ‘concern.’” She and her children became sick after the spill, and since then, she has tried to gather as much information as possible about the spill and how it is being dealt with. Susan is not convinced that it makes sense to open the river with such a wealth of information missing on the environmental and public health risks.
In fact, we still don’t know enough about the cause of the spill. One of the missing studies is the final National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) report that would shed light about what exactly happened in the spill. In fact, we are still learning from documents that are just being released by the NTSB which has been investigating the accident for almost two years. According to this Inside Climate News Article the spill leaked for 17 hours (not 12 as initially reported) before it was stopped. Another recent learning according to Inside Climate News is that the initial estimate of the amount of oil spills may be low.
Meanwhile, Enbridge is talking about expanding the very line that caused so much damage 2 years ago – a concerning proposal that would mean even greater risk for the Kalamazoo River which my colleague Danielle Droitsch has blogged on here. Unfortunately, this is not the only proposal to expand or build a new tar sands pipelines. Big Oil and the Canadian and Alberta government are trying to push their tar sands to the West Coast of Canada via the Enbridge Northern Gateway Pipeline and an expansion of Kinder Morgan’s Trans Mountain Pipeline, to the East Coast with the Trailbreaker Pipeline and this expansion of Line 6B, to the Gulf Coast with the Keystone XL Pipeline, as well as a number of other proposals. There is significant public opposition to all of these proposals.
It is important that state and federal officials reject efforts by Enbridge and other pipeline companies to take actions that would approve new or expand existing tar sands pipelines before we understand the safety of these lines. Currently, the National Academy of Sciences is carrying out a study on the risks of transporting diluted bitumen via pipelines. We know from experience that tar sands pipelines are risky; in fact, in the past 30 days, Alberta has had 3 major pipeline spills, one of which was a tar sands spill -- so the NAS study is likely to add confirmation to what we already know. Especially before we have all of our answers, while the Kalamazoo River is still being cleaned up, and while we haven’t figured out how to clean up tar sands pipeline spills, it makes no sense to build or expand tar sands pipelines. If nothing else, the ongoing tragedy in Michigan around the Kalamazoo River spill area should serve as an important lesson for us all.
Ruptured pipe from the Kalamazoo River tar sands oil spill. Credit: NTSB.
Comments are closed for this post.