When tar sands crude spills into water, it doesn’t float on top in an oily sheen for all to see. It sinks to the bottom, mixes with sediment, and creates a toxic, viscous muck that is almost impossible to remove completely.
That is exactly what happened three years ago in the Kalamazoo River in Southwest Michigan, and that is exactly what critics of plans to ship tar sands crude by barge across the Great Lakes say will happen again if industry is given the green light.
According to a new report released by the Alliance for the Great Lakes, Calumet Specialty Products Partners, L.P. is preparing to begin shipping tar sands crude by barge on the Great Lakes as early as 2015. Calumet and its dock partner, Elkhorn Industries, recently applied for several permits from the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources. Plans include a $25 million loading dock on Lake Superior, and the heavy crude would most likely travel from Wisconsin across Lake Superior to Lake Michigan. From there the barges would continue on to refineries in Whiting, Indiana, Lemont, Illinois, and Detroit, Michigan, as well as other destinations along the St. Lawrence Seaway. There is simply more tar sands crude being extracted from Alberta, Canada than can currently be transported to market via existing channels.
The Great Lakes supplies drinking water for over 40 million people in North America and is the largest surface freshwater resource in the world.
Back in 2010, the Enbridge tar sands crude pipeline leaked over one million gallons of bitumen into the Kalamazoo River. The EPA estimates that nearly 180,000 gallons still lie on the river bottom despite $1 billion spent on cleanup.
Enbridge, which owns several pipelines to refineries on or near the Great Lakes, is planning to expand its pipeline to Superior, Wisconsin, to accommodate another 120,000 barrels per day, up from 450,000.
In 2005, a cargo vessel transporting clarified slurry oil in the Chicago Sanitary and Ship Canal exploded, discharging 84,000 gallons of oil into the water.
“We’re at a crossroads now, with companies starting to seek permits for new oil terminals,” says Lyman Welch, director of the Alliance for the Great Lakes’ Water Quality Program in a press release. “Before our region starts sinking money into shipping terminals for the Great Lakes, our task should be to ask ‘if’ rather than ‘when.’”
The Great Lakes isn’t the only freshwater resource being assessed for transportation use by the fossil fuel industry. The U.S. Coast Guard is considering a proposal that would allow barges to carry the chemical-and-sand infused fracking water down the Ohio River and other major navigable rivers. The barges would assist and potentially gradually replace tanker trucks which currently haul wastewater out of Pennsylvania to states like Ohio where the geology and state regulations make it easier to dispose of the wastewater in underground wells.
The exact composition of fracking wastewater is difficult to pin down, though the list of often dangerous chemicals includes biocides, barium, benzene, and radioactive isotopes, which can all be harmful to human health in a drinking water supply. About 5 million people rely on the Ohio River for their drinking water. The Coast Guard is currently reviewing public comments on the proposal, but has not announced when a final decision will be made.