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Far from DC, Michigan Residents Fight Their Own Tar Sands Pipeline Battles

Rocky Kistner

Posted February 29, 2012

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As TransCanada announced it would begin building the southern leg of its Keystone XL tar sands oil pipeline from Oklahoma to Texas—setting the stage for a new Congressional battle over the transnational pipeline—Michigan residents are worried about a massive tar sands oil spill that persists in their backyards.   

That’s because thousands of people along the Kalamazoo River are still dealing with a record tar sands oil pipeline accident  that closed 40 miles of their river, with no end in sight. Residents say it forced people to move, hurt their businesses and continues to threaten their health. Some say they will never let their kids swim in the river again. And they worry that future pipeline company plans to expand tar sands oil operations in the area may endanger their lives even more.

Check out this video about Michigan residents impacted by the tar sands pipeline spill:  


On July 25, 2010, 10 days after the disastrous BP Deepwater Horizon well was finally plugged, an Enbridge Energy pipeline carrying heavy Canadian tar sands crude burst near Talmadge Creek, which feeds into the Kalamazoo River that empties into Lake Michigan. According to the EPA, over a million gallons of the toxic oil gushed into the creek and quickly made its way into the Kalamazoo, contaminating riverbanks and sediments that are still closed to the public and undergoing cleanup today. It is not clear when the river will be opened up or what it will cost; at more than $700 million and counting, it already is the most expensive U.S. pipeline accident in history.

Tar sands oil is much more toxic than conventional crude, so a spill of this magnitude creates a much more difficult and hazardous petroleum brew to clean up. Until the Enbridge Energy pipeline spewed a million gallons of Canadian tar sands oil into Michigan waters, no one had ever attempted to clean up this amount of tar sands oil before. It is a huge experiment, and no one knows how long it will take. Here's how NRDC's Anthony Swift blogged about the tar sands oil that poisoned the Kalamazoo;

Raw tar sands bitumen is nearly solid at room temperature and must be diluted with toxic natural gas liquids to create the thick sludge that travels in high pressure pipelines. This sludge is between fifty and seventy times as thick as conventional crude oil. When spilled, the light natural gas liquid in the tar sands vaporizes, creating a toxic flammable gas that poses a health hazard to emergency responders and nearby landowners. The bitumen, which is heavier than water, sinks into rivers and mixes with sediments.  Bitumen contains significantly more heavy metals than conventional crudes and does not biodegrade.

Locals say the tar sands contamination has impacted their health and destroyed their once-peaceful rural lifestyles with the roar of heavy machinery and helicopters that buzz over-head. EPA has plans for cleanup that extends through this year, but it’s not clear how long the cleanup process will take as experts debate what to do about pockets of submerged oil and contamination that is hard to mop up.

Marshall, MI, resident Susan Connolly says her two kids were sickened by noxious fumes from the heavily oiled river, and she describes a never-ending nightmare of delays, confusion and worries about what will become of her community that now is ground zero for the ongoing cleanup. She and other residents have made it their mission to educate themselves about tar sands oil, a special kind of crude she calls nasty and dangerous.

“Nobody knew what was in these pipelines until this disaster happened,” Connolly says. “The more we learn the more it is.  Now we are learning Enbridge wants to build more tar sands pipelines to ship oil to refineries in the area. People here just don’t know what’s going on.”

Sign along Kalamazoo River, Marshall, MI     Photo: Rocky Kistner/NRDC


The national political fight over the Keystone XL pipeline is a long ways off for people of this central Michigan community. But in some ways, it’s as close as the icy rapids of the Kalamazoo River, a natural treasure that 20 months later still remains off-limits along a 40-mile stretch. Along the waterways, red and white signs warn people the water is closed to fishing, boating and swimming, a constant reminder of the perils of pipelines carrying toxic Canadian tar sands crude south into the U.S.

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BSMar 1 2012 08:59 AM

Bill Clinton supports building Keystone XL:

He also makes good points about conservation and alternative energy.

BSMar 1 2012 09:03 AM

As usual, this article is full of inaccuracies.

I'm feeling lazy, so I'll address only one:
Natural gas liquids (NGLs) are not used to dilute bitumen. NGLs are ethanes, propanes, and butanes. What IS used to dilute bitumen is called condensate (or natural gas condensate). Condensate is more like a mixture of gasoline and diesel, and it doesn't evaporate quite as readily as the article claims.

Much of the bitumen is heavier than water, which certainly does make cleanup more difficult. The spill in Michigan is certainly unfortunate.

Mark WendmanMar 5 2012 12:48 PM

Now as of this morning I am convinced that GHGs as cause of global warming is patently false. Being brainwashed does not compensate for real data.

You have to read SCIENCE and understand experiments that have correlated CLOUD formation ( sources of actual temperature modulation of the earth ) to solar and cosmic radiation and changes in earth magnetic fields

As the sun's nuclear radiation activity increases, its magnetic coupling to the earth and the huge impact that changes in the sun and cosmic radiation impinging on the earth as it affects CLOUD FORMATION.

Hard for simpletons to comprehend REAL SCIENCE, but the "religion" of global warming BY ""GREENHOUSE GASES??"" is hokus pocus dead wrong. Scientifically proven. My apologies to Al Gore and Bill McKibben and realtives.

You will have to read to LEARN FACTS - the correlation of cloud cover to solar intensity of its radiation ( nuclear radiation, high energy particles HITTING the earth, and the variations of MAGNETIC FIELDs of the earth in protecting us from excessive solar nuclear radiation.

GLOBAL WARMING as wrongly assumed to be caused by greenhouse gases is not possessing any scientific basis in light of this scientist's little known work ( almost suppressed by the scientific community because of "religious dogma" causing lemming like thoughtlessness. )

listen and watch these videos of a brilliant scientist who has found a time immerial correlation of global warming to cosmic and solar radiation and the earth's ever changing MAGNETIC fields ( which protect us from dangerous cancers from this nuclear cosmic and solar radiation )


Sorry to burst the bubble of ignorance ( amongst the Green House Gas "promoters" but that is all this is - Green House gas gobbledygook .... no real basis at all to connect purported green house gases with any changes in earths temperature.

Get a life, and do something positive of substance like fighting poverty, improving education, helping your community, and feeding the destitute.

GLOBAL Warming is NOT CAUSED BY "Greenhouse Gases" even if that is hard to swallow.

FWIW I worked in consulting in clearntech for 4 yrs to promote better more valued investments in solar, wind, batteries and more. Fact of the matter is CLEANTECH is largely intended to be a mechanism for others to gain profits in the face of legislative changes based on flase cleantech ( speculative ) science, that now is exposed for what it is, a lie greater than anyone might have thought of.

Time is better spent trying to control solar ( the suns ) nuclear reaction rates and solar flare emissions, which naturally is impossible for humans to control. ( sadly )

breath a great sigh of relief, you can now get a normal life.

low clouds have a strong cooling effects,
fewer cosmic rays, renders fewer low clouds and the earth becomes warmer.

Clouds are not caused by (purported) Green House Gases to the chagrin of many here and elsewhere.

Varying concentrations of Low Clouds are caused by variances in solar ( the suns )nuclear emissions - flare intensities. fewer soalr flares, renders fewer low clouds, and hence hotter earth temperatures.

Global Warming HAS No connection at all to purported ( causeless ) "green house gases"

my apologies to bursting this bubble

Mark Wendman
a Physicist ..... not sucked into the false religion of "greenhouse gases"

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