Remember the Kalamazoo

Oil sheen is shown in the Kalamazoo River in Battle Creek, Mich., from a ruptured pipeline, owned by Enbridge Inc., Thursday,
Oil sheen is shown in the Kalamazoo River in Battle Creek, Mich., from a ruptured pipeline, owned by Enbridge Inc., Thursday, July 29, 2010. (AP Photo/Paul Sancya)

On July 25, 2010, a pipeline operated by Enbridge ruptured and dumped more than a million gallons of tar sands crude oil into Talmadge Creek near Marshall, Michigan. The creek is a tributary of the Kalamazoo River, and the oil spread downstream for 38 miles. Fortunately, the oil was stopped before it reached Lake Michigan. It was the largest inland oil spill in U.S. history.

Why mark the fifth anniversary of this disaster tomorrow?

Certainly not because an oil spill is a particularly unusual event. Between 1999 and 2010, Enbridge reported 804 spills of hydrocarbons across all its operations. Sooner or later, if you drill, you spill. But what this first great U.S. tar sands disaster, and its aftermath, have made impossible to ignore is just how dangerous tar sands oil is to humans and the environment.

Within weeks, it was obvious that cleaning up the Kalamazoo would be far more difficult and expensive than anyone had imagined. Tar sands bitumen must be diluted to pump it through pipelines. Prior to the spill, the tar sands industry claimed that this diluted bitumen (dilbit) would float on water rather than sink. They were right, but only for a while. Once the volatile (and toxic) components of the dilbit vaporized, the bitumen sank to the riverbed, mixing with sediment. After several years and hundreds of millions of dollars, Enbridge declared that it had finished the job, only to be forced by the U.S. EPA to do still more dredging. Finally, after five years and a staggering $1.2 billion, the river may look clean, but no one can say for certain how much oil remains trapped in its sediments or what its long-term effects might be.

For residents who were exposed to known carcinogens or who get their drinking water from wells near the river, the fear will never completely go away.

No matter how much money Enbridge spends on cleanup or pays in fines, no one can undo the disaster that happened five years ago. What we can do is prevent the next disaster. That's within our power because we've already begun to displace dirty fuels with clean energy. As we learn how to grow our economy while using fewer dirty fuels, our oil use has declined dramatically.

When we know that we can build an economy based on clean energy, why would we choose to continue to expand our use of the dirtiest and most dangerous fuels? And if there's one thing the Kalamazoo disaster reinforced, it's that tar sands oil is as dirty and dangerous as it gets.

Soon, the nations of the world will meet once again to wrestle with the threat of climate disruption from burning fossil fuels. The United States should lead by turning away from tar sands oil and going all in on clean energy. When it comes to tar sands, that means not only denying a permit for the Keystone XL pipeline but for any project that would cross our borders, including the expansion of Enbridge's notorious Alberta Clipper pipeline.

And if you're in Michigan or a neighboring state, consider joining us for a special "Remember the Kalamazoo" event in Battle Creek on July 25 to learn firsthand about the devastating consequences of tar sands from the people most affected by the Enbridge spill.