'Keystone Kops' Bungling Led to Costliest U.S. Pipeline Spill

Oil continued to be drained near the oil spill by Talmadge Creek in Township, Mich., in early August 2010. Photograph by John Grap/The Enquirer/AP Photo Close

Oil continued to be drained near the oil spill by Talmadge Creek in Township, Mich., in... Read More

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Oil continued to be drained near the oil spill by Talmadge Creek in Township, Mich., in early August 2010. Photograph by John Grap/The Enquirer/AP Photo

The following is an excerpt from “The Dilbit Disaster: Inside the Biggest Oil Spill You've Never Heard of,” a seven-month investigation by InsideClimate News, a non-profit news organization focused on climate change and energy issues. To see a slideshow about the 2010 Enbridge oil spill, click here.

An acrid stench had already enveloped John LaForge's five-bedroom house when he opened the door just after 6 a.m. on July 26, 2010. By the time the building contractor hurried the few feet to the refuge of his Dodge Ram pickup, his throat was stinging and his head was throbbing.

LaForge was excavating a basement when his wife called a couple of hours later. The odor had become even more sickening, Lorraine told him. And a fire truck was parked in front of their house, where Talmadge Creek rippled toward the Kalamazoo River.

LaForge headed home. By the time he arrived, the stink was so intense that he could barely keep his breakfast down.

Something else was wrong, too.

Water from the usually tame creek had inundated his yard, the way it often did after heavy rains. But this time a black goo coated swaths of his golf course-green grass. It stopped just 10 feet from the metal cap that marked his drinking water well. Walking on the tarry mess was like stepping on chewing gum.

LaForge said he was stooped over the creek, looking for the source of the gunk, when two men in a white truck marked Enbridge pulled up just before 10 a.m. One rushed to LaForge's open front door and disappeared inside with an air- monitoring instrument.

The man emerged less than a minute later, and uttered the words that still haunt LaForge today: It's not safe to be here. You're going to have to leave your house. Now.

John and Lorraine LaForge, their grown daughter and one of the three grandchildren living with them at the time piled into the pickup and their minivan as fast as they could, given Lorraine's health problems. They didn't pause to grab toys for the baby or extra clothes for the two children at preschool. They didn't even lock up the house.

Within a half hour, they had checked into two rooms at a Holiday Inn Express, which the family of six would call home for the next 61 days.

The LaForges’ lives had been turned upside down by the first major spill of Canadian diluted bitumen in a U.S. river. Diluted bitumen is the same type of oil that could someday be carried by the much-debated Keystone XL pipeline. If that project is approved, it would cross the Ogallala aquifer, which supplies drinking water for eight states as well as 30 percent of the nation's irrigation water. President Barack Obama rejected TransCanada Corp.’s initial pipeline permit application in January, inviting them to reapply with an alternative route, which it has.

"People don't realize how your life can change overnight," LaForge told an InsideClimate News reporter as they drove slowly past his empty house in November 2011. "It has been devastating."

* * * *

July 25 marks the second anniversary of the nation’s most costly oil pipeline accident—a rupture that dumped more than 1.1 million gallons of heavy crude into Michigan’s Kalamazoo River, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. The spill drove 150 families permanently from their homes. The U.S. Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration proposed $3.7 million in civil fines for Enbridge on July 2. The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) recently cited the company for failing to properly maintain the pipeline and chastised the pipeline safety agency for weak federal regulations.

The spill happened in Marshall, a community of 7,400 in southwestern Michigan. More than 1.1 million gallons of oil blackened two miles of Talmadge Creek and almost 36 miles of the Kalamazoo River, according to the EPA’s most recent Situation Report (pdf). The EPA’s estimate of the amount of oil that has been collected exceeds Enbridge’s estimate of 843,444 gallons by 15 percent. Enbridge spokeswoman Terri Larson told InsideClimate News that the company stands by that number as accurate.

Oil is still showing up two years later, as the cleanup continues. About 150 families have been permanently relocated and most of the tainted stretch of river between Marshall and Kalamazoo remained closed to the public until June 21.

The accident was triggered by a six-and-a-half foot tear in Line 6B, a 30- inch carbon steel pipeline operated by Enbridge Energy Partners LP, a U.S. affiliate of Enbridge Inc., Canada's largest transporter of crude oil. With Enbridge's costs already totaling more than $765 million, it is the most expensive oil pipeline spill since the U.S. government began keeping records in 1968.

"This investigation identified a complete breakdown of safety at Enbridge. Their employees performed like Keystone Kops and failed to recognize their pipeline had ruptured and continued to pump crude into the environment," said NTSB Chairman Deborah A.P. Hersman in a July 10 press release. "Despite multiple alarms and a loss of pressure in the pipeline, for more than 17 hours and through three shifts they failed to follow their own shutdown procedures." Enbridge restarted the pipeline twice in that 17-hour period, pumping through oil that would account for 81 percent of the total spill, the NTSB said.

Despite the scope of the damage, the Enbridge spill didn’t attract much national attention, perhaps because it occurred just 10 days after oil stopped spewing from BP Plc's Macondo well in the Gulf of Mexico, which ruptured three months earlier. Early reports about the Enbridge spill also downplayed its seriousness. Just about everybody, including the EPA officials who rushed to Marshall in July 2010, expected the mess to be cleaned up in a couple of months.

What the EPA didn't know then, however, was that Line 6B was carrying bitumen, the dirtiest, stickiest oil on the market.

Bitumen is so thick—about the consistency of peanut butter—that it doesn't flow from a well like the crude oil found in most of the nation's pipelines. Instead the tarry resin is either steamed or strip-mined from sandy soil. Then it is thinned with large quantities of liquid chemicals so it can be pumped through pipelines. These diluents usually include benzene, a carcinogen. At this point it becomes diluted bitumen, or dilbit.

The National Resources Defense Council and some other environmental organizations say dilbit is so acidic and abrasive that it's more likely to corrode and weaken pipes than conventional oil. The oil industry disputes that hypothesis. Enbridge and other companies say dilbit is no different from conventional crude.

No independent scientific research has been done to determine who is right. But there is one fact neither side disputes: The cleanup of the Kalamazoo River dilbit spill was unlike any cleanup the EPA had ever tackled before. The National Academy of Sciences is conducting a research project into the “pipeline transport of diluted bitumen” that meets for the first time this week.

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.

InsideClimate News learned that federal and local officials didn't discover until more than a week after the spill that Line 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 said. "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."

Jim Rutherford, the public health officer for Michigan's Calhoun County, said he had "no idea what I was driving into," when he rushed to Marshall the day 6B ruptured.

"We just weren't ready for anything of this magnitude,” Rutherford said. “We didn't even know the nature of the type of crude."

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