Two Years On, Kalamzoo Tar Sands Spill Casts Long Shadow

A cleanup crew member at the site of the Kalamazoo River spill in July 2010.

A cleanup crew member at the site of the Kalamazoo River spill in July 2010. mic stolz/Flickr

By Tim McDonnell, Originally published on MotherJones.

This week, as Senate Democrats narrowly defeated a renewed—and some say misguided—call to rush construction of the Keystone XL oil pipeline, residents and officials at the site of the country’s largest-ever tar sands oil spill are still reeling nearly two years after the fact. A look at the fallout from that incident in Michigan reveals that a spill of diluted bitumen, the kind from Alberta’s tar sands that Keystone would carry, is a far nastier beast than your typical spill of conventional crude. It also shows that cleaning it up can be just as damaging to the environment as the spill itself.

A story this week in the Canadian online magazine The Tyee outlines how, 20 months after a pipe carrying tar sands “dil-bit” burst on the Kalamazoo River near Marshall, residents and local Environmental Protection Agency officials are still struggling to clean up the river. It was the first-ever major spill of this type of heavy oil, and it blindsided EPA cleanup crews: recovering the 1.2 million gallons of oil that have been cleaned up so far has cost the pipe’s owner, Enbridge Energy Partners, roughly $725 million—10 times as much, per liter, as the average spill of conventional crude. Ralph Dollhopf, who led the EPA’s response to the incident, told local media that the agency had to “write the book” on dealing with a cleanup of tar sands bitumen.

The underlying issue, Natural Resources Defense Council attorney Anthony Swift told me, is that US and Canadian officials don’t know just how different dil-bit is from conventional crude. With US imports of tar sands bitumen projected to shoot up to 1.5 million barrels per day by 2019 (up from 100,000 barrels in all of 2000), Swift said there remains a serious deficit in US and Canadian officials’ understanding of how to manage potential spills. “The pipeline safety issue is just one of many areas where tar sands production hasn’t been fully evaluated,” he said. That didn’t deter Alberta Premier Alison M. Redford from telling reporters she was “very optimistic” that the Keystone pipeline, which would likely be an economic windfall for her province, would be approved by the Obama administration should the president win reelection.

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