Far From D.C., Michigan Residents Fight Their Own Tar Sands Pipeline Battles

As TransCanada announced it would begin building the southern leg of its Keystone XL tar sands oil pipeline from Oklahoma to Texas -- setting the stage for a new Congressional battle over the transnational pipeline -- Michigan residents are worried about a massive tar sands oil spill that persists in their backyards.   

Thousands of people along the Kalamazoo River are still dealing with a record tar sands oil pipeline accident  that closed 40 miles of their river, with no end in sight. Residents say it forced people to move, hurt their businesses and continues to threaten their health. Some say they will never let their kids swim in the river again. And they worry that future pipeline company plans to expand tar sands oil operations in the area may endanger their lives even more.

Check out this video about Michigan residents impacted by the tar sands pipeline spill:  

On July 25, 2010, 10 days after the disastrous BP Deepwater Horizon well was finally plugged, an Enbridge Energy pipeline carrying heavy Canadian tar sands crude burst near Talmadge Creek, which feeds into the Kalamazoo River that empties into Lake Michigan. According to the EPA, over a million gallons of the toxic oil gushed into the creek and quickly made its way into the Kalamazoo, contaminating riverbanks and sediments that are still closed to the public and undergoing cleanup today. It is not clear when the river will be opened up or what it will cost; at more than $700 million and counting, it already is the most expensive U.S. pipeline accident in history.

Tar sands oil is much more toxic than conventional crude, so a spill of this magnitude creates a much more difficult and hazardous petroluem brew to clean up. Until the Enbridge Energy pipeline spewed a million gallons of Canadian tar sands oil into Michigan waters, no one had ever attempted to clean up this amount of tar sands petroleum before. It is a huge experiment, and no one knows how long it will take. Here's how NRDC's Anthony Swift blogged about the tar sands oil that poisoned the Kalamazoo;

Raw tar sands bitumen is nearly solid at room temperature and must be diluted with toxic natural gas liquids to create the thick sludge that travels in high pressure pipelines. This sludge is between fifty and seventy times as thick as conventional crude oil. When spilled, the light natural gas liquid in the tar sands vaporizes, creating a toxic flammable gas that poses a health hazard to emergency responders and nearby landowners. The bitumen, which is heavier than water, sinks into rivers and mixes with sediments.  Bitumen contains significantly more heavy metals than conventional crudes and does not biodegrade.

Locals say the tar sands contamination has impacted their health and destroyed their once-peaceful rural lifestyles with the roar of heavy machinery and helicopters that buzz overhead. EPA has plans for cleanup that extends through this year, but it’s not clear how long the cleanup process will take as experts debate what to do about pockets of submerged oil and contamination that is hard to mop up.

Marshall, MI, resident Susan Connolly says her two kids were sickened by noxious fumes from the heavily oiled river, and she describes a never-ending nightmare of delays, confusion and worries about what will become of her community that now is ground zero for the ongoing cleanup. She and other residents have made it their mission to educate themselves about tar sands oil, a special kind of crude she calls nasty and dangerous.

“Nobody knew what was in these pipelines until this disaster happened,” Connolly says. “The more we learn the more it is.  Now we are learning Enbridge wants to build more tar sands pipelines to ship oil to refineries in the area. People here just don’t know what’s going on.”

Sign along Kalamazoo River, Marshall, MI     Photo: Rocky Kistner/NRDC

The national political fight over the Keystone XL pipeline is a long way off for people of this central Michigan community. But in some ways, it’s as close as the icy rapids of the Kalamazoo River, a natural treasure that 20 months later still remains off limits along a 40-mile stretch. Along the waterways, red and white signs warn people the water is closed to fishing, boating and swimming, a constant reminder of the perils of pipelines carrying toxic Canadian tar sands crude south into the U.S.