Michigan River Remains Poisoned By Oil Five Years After Massive Spill


Five years ago, a pipeline carrying crude oil from Canadian tar sands ruptured in Michigan, spilling over 1 million gallons into the Kalamazoo River in what would become the largest inland oil spill in U.S. history. Now, as oil companies attempt to expand pipelines across the upper Midwest, and as the Keystone Pipeline that would carry similar crude waits for approval from the State Department, activists and residents are gathering to remember the historic spill — and add their voices to a groundswell of local pipeline opposition that began five years ago.

“It’s telling that when we have been citing pipelines, even in Minnesota, the Kalamazoo spill is brought up an awful lot,” Andy Pearson, Midwest tar sands coordinator for told ThinkProgress. “Kalamazoo is not in the past. It’s still really in the present for the people on the ground there. It’s something that shows how wrong it can go.”

When the pipeline — an aging structure owned by Canadian oil company Enbridge Inc. — first ruptured, it was the middle of the night on July 25, 2010. It took more than 17 hours for Enbridge to cut off the pipeline’s flow, a delayed response compounded by the company’s dismissal of alarms as a malfunction and attempts to fix the problem by pumping more oil into the pipeline. By the time the pipeline had been shut off, more than 1 million gallons of tar sands crude oil had spilled into the Kalamazoo River, impacting nearly 40 miles of the river and 4,435 acres of shoreline.

The spill was especially devastating because of the nature of tar sands crude — a substance that OnEarth’s Brian Palmer notes “looks more like dirt than conventional crude.” To get tar sands crude to travel through pipelines, oil companies mix the substance with natural gas liquids to create something called diluted bitumen, or dilbit. When the tar sands crude leaked into the river, the natural gas liquids vaporized and drifted into nearby neighborhoods, forcing the evacuation of hundreds of residents who lived in the area. The tar sands bitumen, however, drifted to the bottom of the river. That made cleanup especially difficult, because most oil spill cleanup technology is meant to deal with surface-level oil, through skimmers and vacuums made to remove oil from the water’s surface.

That technology was rendered essentially useless in the case of Kalamazoo, which was the first major pipeline disaster to involved diluted bitumen. Enbridge was forced to dredge the river to clean it, a costly and time consuming solution that proved not entirely effective. Even five years after the spill, environmentalists claim that tar sand bitumen remains in parts of the river.


CREDIT: ThinkProgress/Dylan Petrohilos

“The Kalamazoo River still isn’t clean,” Anthony Swift, director of NRDC’s Canada Project, told OnEarth. “The EPA reached a point where additional cleanup might do more harm than good. Much of the river is still contaminated.”

In May, Enbridge agreed to pay $75 million for its role in the spill, on top of the $9.95 million it had already paid to settle previous fines and suits related to the disaster. The company could still face up to a $40 million fine from the EPA under the Clean Water Act, which InsideClimateNews reports would be the largest fine ever related to a pipeline spill.

To Chris Wahmhoff, who grew up a mere 100 yards from the Kalamazoo River, the fifth anniversary — and any potential EPA fines — are just another step in the long fight to hold Enbridge accountable for the damage they caused. Wahmhoff remembers playing in the river nearly every day as a child — an avid kayaker, the river was an integral part of his life until the 2010 spill, when residents were told to stay away.

“The biggest thing I remember is the word ‘control,'” Wahmhoff told ThinkProgress. “All we ever heard about the spill was that everything was under control and safe, but not to go in the water. That was mostly the information that the general public went with. No one went to the river for a year and a half.”

In 2012, Wahmhoff returned to the river alongside a former Enbridge employee, who told him about how the company had buried oil on the riverbanks. Wahmhoff didn’t believe him — his brother worked for Halliburton, he said, and he didn’t think that oil or gas companies would have any reason to obscure facts from the public. But he was shocked by what he saw when he finally returned to the river.

“I went to a river that I had been to every day of my life, and it was unrecognizable,” he said. “It looked like a grave. There was no vegetation.”

While at the river, Wahmhoff says that he stepped into sand that should have been about 10 inches deep. Instead, he was swallowed by a quicksand-like substance that engulfed him to his waist. According to Wahmhoff, when his friends managed to pull him out of the sand, his leg was covered in black oil. Wahmhoff says that he threw up for three days straight, and developed a rash a month later. Now, in 2015, he has been diagnosed with a rare disease that he says is a product of his exposure to the bitumen from the oil spill.

But beyond drawing attention to the communities and ecosystems impacted by the Kalamazoo spill, Wahmhoff hopes that his story — and the story of others who lived through the spill — can serve as inspiration to other Midwest communities fighting pipelines.

“All of us on the ground, we definitely embrace the idea that we’ve been the canary in the coal mine,” Wahmhoff said. “We want everyone to understand not just that there was an oil spill and not just that those chemicals make people sick, but that [oil companies] don’t do a good job of protecting the community or informing the community about what dangers they face.”

Wahmhoff is one of the primary organizers of Remember Kalamazoo, a three-day event meant both to mark the fifth anniversary of the spill and serve as a gathering of activists and communities worried about pipeline construction throughout the upper Midwest and beyond.

Enbridge is currently working to expand its network of pipelines across North America, attempting to construct or expand new pipeline projects through Illinois, northern Minnesota, and Wisconsin. And though Enbridge officials maintain that the pipelines are safe, the company has faced staunch opposition from local communities.

“Enbridge says that they are very unhappy about the [Kalamazoo River] spill and how it happened, but I think that what they are the most unhappy about is the movement that the spill unleashed,” Pearson said. “What they’ve chosen to do in Michigan is stand up and fight back.”