America has a new word to learn: Dilbit.
Dilbit, short for diluted bitumen, is a combination of tar sands crude (bitumen) and dangerous liquid chemicals like benzene (the dilutant) used to thin crude so it can be piped to refineries.
And there is a lot of it being piped into America — in some cases through the backyards of communities that don’t even know it’s there.
The U.S. imports around half a million barrels of bitumen a day from Canada’s tar sands. According to the Sierra Club, if Keystone XL backers get their way, that number may grow to 1.5 million barrels per day.
A must-read investigation released this week by Inside Climate News illustrates why that could be a potential nightmare for communities located near pipeline infrastructure.
The story follows the complicated clean-up of a tar sands oil spill that most people haven’t even heard of — a 2010 pipeline rupture in southwestern Michigan that resulted in more than one million gallons of dilbit fouling a local waterway close to the Kalamazoo River.
The three-part narrative is detailed and extremely well-researched. It features a blow-by-blow account of how the pipeline ruptured, how officials acted (or, in the case of the pipeline owner, Enbridge, how it failed to act) and why dilbit represents a double threat to the environment and public health. It also shows why having an Environmental Protection Agency is so important when crisis hits.
This investigation is a must-read for any public official or resident from a community located near the proposed route of the Keystone XL pipeline.
Here’s why, nearly two years after the spill, residents are still finding tar balls in the local waterway:
Instead of remaining on top of the water, as most conventional crude oil does, the bitumen gradually sank to the river’s bottom, where normal cleanup techniques and equipment were of little use. Meanwhile, the benzene and other chemicals that had been added to liquefy the bitumen evaporated into the air.
InsideClimate News also learned that federal and local officials didn’t discover until more than a week after the spill that 6B was carrying dilbit, not conventional oil. Federal regulations do not require pipeline operators to disclose that information. And Enbridge officials did not volunteer it.
Mark Durno, an EPA deputy incident commander who is still involved in the cleanup in Marshall, is among those who were surprised by what they found.
“Submerged oil is what makes this thing more unique than even the Gulf of Mexico situation,” Durno told InsideClimate News. “Yes, that was huge—but they knew the beast they were dealing with. This experience was brand new for us. It would have been brand new for anyone in the United States.”
One of the most compelling pieces of the investigation comes when the reporters examine the safety record of America’s pipeline infrastructure. The results are shocking: