Three and a half years ago, an oil pipeline spilled 843,000 gallons of tar sands bitumen into the Kalamazoo River, the largest spill of its kind in American history. The clean-up effort has cost over a billion dollars, but is it doing more harm than...
From the Kalamazoo clean-up site. Photo by Michelle Barlond-Smith.
It’s been three and a half years since Enbridge’s Line 6B pipeline ruptured in Marshall, Michigan, leaking more than 843,000 gallons of diluted tar sands bitumen into the Kalamazoo River. It was the largest on-land oil spill in the history of the USA, and remains, so far, as the largest spill of tar sands oil ever. Yet despite Enbridge’s immense, ongoing clean-up operation, which has spanned more than three years, cost over a billion dollars, and removed significantly more oil from the river than the company will admit it spilled, those living in Enbridge’s sacrifice zone have more questions than answers—even as most areas of the river have been re-opened for public use. High on the list of concerns is a chilling refrain: What are these chemicals that work crews have been dumping into the river in massive quantities, and are they dangerous?
At first, eyewitness accounts of workers spraying what appeared to be chemicals at the ground or out of boats, pouring unidentified liquid detergents into the water, or dumping hundreds of truckloads of sand-like powder into the river from dump trucks, became subjects of intrigue and speculation among community members and local activists. Another telltale sign was mysterious, oily foam floating on the water, and frequent helicopter deliveries of cargo to back-wooded areas of the Kalamazoo. There was an air of secrecy amongst those who carried out the work. They conducted large operations at night and told the residents that they were only spraying water or pesticides to repel mosquitos. Michelle Barlond-Smith, a former resident of the heavily impacted Baker Trailer Park, told me that “a lot of us thought they were hiding and covering up stuff, trying to bury it, the oil. The first time I heard about it was probably a month into the spill. One of my neighbors said, ‘Hey Michelle, they’re back there, they’re spraying something on the ground.’ And I’d go racing back there and the minute they would see me they would take off, running—literally sometimes running.”
Craig Ritter, an intrepid explorer of the Kalamazoo and a fisherman turned activist, told me similar stories. “Along with other residents, we were seeing a lot of dump trucks backing up to the river and dumping product in, which we thought at the time was probably sand,” he said. He had assumed that the trucks were there to “put sand back into the river [in order] to fill the holes that they were dredging,” but discovered that the trucks weren’t carrying sand at all. “When I did get a chance to get close to one of those trucks it had a real strong herbicide, almost pesticide, chemical smell to it,” Ritter explained. Like Michelle Barlond-Smith, Ritter had also sensed that Enbridge was hiding something. As a result of his repeated explorations of the Kalamazoo, he found himself occasionally “followed around by personnel vehicles,” and noticed “cars pulled up, and kind of eyeballing, if not having a camera out and taking pictures of me” when he lingered in sections of the river that had already been re-opened for public use.
I asked Graham White, an Enbridge spokesperson, if these allegations were true. He explained that “the spraying that you described was in fact water that had no added chemicals into it… we didn’t even use fresh water for that… I did also ask around about this dumping of a sand-like substance into the river. Of everyone I spoke to, nobody has any idea what that was, they just know it wasn’t us. That’s not something that we would have done. Whatever that activity is, it’s not associated with us or any aspect of the initial response cleanup or the later remediation or recovery.”
Yet, as Craig Ritter continued to explore the Kalamazoo, a series of unlikely discoveries turned this hearsay into evidence. When the river was re-opened, Ritter said he “started seeing some fish and thought I would start fishing again. And I got in there, wading the river, doing what I normally do, and I happened to walk on top of one of these rocks, and it crumbled.” The crumbled rock was, in fact, not a rock, but a semi-porous ball of rock and tar which released an oily sheen if pressed or crumbled. Following this initial discovery, Ritter found many more of these tar balls lining the floor of the Kalamazoo riverbed.
The tar balls. Photo by Craig Ritter.
After sending photos of his tar balls to the EPA, and receiving no response, Ritter raised funds from a Michigan doctor to have his discovery independently tested. He sent a tar ball, a water column sample, and a sample of the diluted bitumen taken on the second day of the spill to ACT laboratories in Alabama, where they were analyzed by chemist Robert Naman. The tests confirmed that the oil in the tar ball was the same oil released three years earlier, but also determined that compounds in the tar balls contained “chemical degradation products that were consistent with surfactant use.” Naman’s report concludes that, “it is blatantly obvious that surfactants were used as well in the Kalamazoo River spill of 2010 and the resulting compounds present mimic those formed and still present in the areas affected by the BP oil spill of 2010.”
Surfactants, like dispersants, are chemical solvents which can break apart oil into micro-particles, enabling them to sink in water while having the pleasant effect of making oil spills look as though they’ve been cleaned up, when really they’ve just been spread out. There are also reports that dispersants can send oil particles airborne, and make the oil persist for much longer in the environment. Naman told me that in order for his tests to detect these compounds, a very large quantity of surfactant would have had to have been put into the water—either “somebody spilled drums and drums of it out there,” or sprayed it “from a boat or... from an airplane.”
The problem here is that, dispersed into smaller parts, oil particles are much more dangerous to humans and animals alike. A statement by scientists compiled after the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico argued that “oil, when combined with dispersants in the water column is more toxic to marine species than either oil or dispersant alone” and “can enter the marine food chain and bio-accumulate in animal tissue.” As for human bodies, the “same properties that facilitate the movement of dispersant through oil also make it easier for them to move through cell walls, skin barriers, and membranes that protect vital organs, underlying layers of the skin, the surface of eyes, mouths, and other structures… dispersants facilitate the entry of oil into the body, into cells, which can result in damage to every organ system.” The side effects of oil exposure, the statement warns, are more likely to occur if oil is mixed with a dispersant, and can include “lung, liver, and kidney damage, infertility, immune system suppression, disruption of hormone levels, blood disorders, mutations, and cancer.”
Naman believes that the chemical used was Corexit 9527a, 9527, 9500, or some derivative of Corexit, and noted that he found “the two types of Corexit degradation products that will show up after use.” This dispersant, which is among the most toxic and least effective products of its kind, was made famous in 2010 when BP bought a third of the world’s supply and dumped it into the Atlantic Ocean, making their massive Gulf of Mexico oil spill look less significant, while effectively increasing the damage it caused. “The actions taken to add surfactants to spilled oil in the Kalamazoo River oil spill were at a minimum criminal as were those during the BP Macondo oil spill into the Gulf of Mexico,” Naman said.
Workers at the spill site. Photo by Michelle Barlond-Smith.
On top of this, not surprisingly, while acting as a “delivery system” into the body, Corexit itself is incredibly toxic. The material safety data sheets for Corexit 9527a classify the substance as an “Immediate (Acute) Health Hazard,” a “Delayed (Chronic) Health Hazard,” and a “Fire Hazard,” advising those that handle this substance to “use personal protective equipment.” It can cause a disgusting litany of health problems, including central nervous system problems, nausea, vomiting, injury to red blood cells, the kidney, or the liver, as well as bleeding from the nose, eyes, and ass.
After a day of speaking to people at the “head office” and “the most senior level” of the company, as well as the department that “was at the scene and coordinated the emergency response and remediation aspects of the entire response from the Kalamazoo spill,” Graham White called me with the company’s final answer: “I can say now, with a very high level of confidence after speaking to all those people, that we used no chemicals including dispersants, bioremediation agents, surface washing agents, surfactants, or washing agents of any kind in any part of the clean-up and in fact made a conscious decision not to use any chemicals on the site in the clean-up whatsoever.”
But trudging through the woods, near the Talmadge Creek site where the spill originated, Craig Ritter made a second unlikely discovery after he pulled some weathered documents out of the mud, which directly contradict Enbridge’s story. Issued by the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality, the documents list a series of chemicals permitted for use at the cleanup site: Glyphosate (Aquaneat), Triclopyr (Garlon 3A), Cygnet Plus surfactant, and Cygnet Select dye. The documents, dated July 16, 2013 and September 30, 2013, also list restrictions for using the water, with boxes checked off indicating “do not swim or bathe,” “do not drink water,” “do not use water for domestic purposes,” “do not irrigate food crops,” and “do not water livestock” until dates that the person filling out the form didn’t bother to specify. The name on the form is Brian Majka, an employee of Cardno JFNew who is listed in a trade journal as being a “senior restoration specialist” who “met with the Enbridge team at the [Kalamazoo] site.” According to the journal, Cardno JFNew was contracted by Enbridge to develop a restoration plan, with Majka personally responsible for contacting “suppliers of restoration materials.”
Regarding these documents, neither the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality nor the federal Environmental Protection Agency could be reached. But both of these notices were issued when the Kalamazoo was open to the public. According to Michelle Barlond-Smith, “there was no public notice in newspapers, there was no public notice to people who might be going down the river… they’re putting this stuff into the creek that leads into the river and no one would have seen it… In my opinion we’ve been turned into a large experiment, a giant slide if you will. We’re the canaries and the lab rats.” I asked Michelle if anyone has been using the river recreationally, and she said that her neighbor’s son went tubing on the river once it re-opened, only to break out in rashes shortly after. “For me, personally, I will not go in that river without protective gear,” she said. “I don’t think it’s clean, I don’t think it’s ever going to be clean in my lifetime after studying other oil spills. Exxon Valdez, 25 years ago, you can still go and dig up oil. This stuff is there probably for the rest of your lifetime and mine.”
I asked Enbridge about these documents, and Graham White, and after initially responding that “our statements still stand,” he told me that “these documents are authorizations from Michigan DEQ for one of our contractors, JFNew, to use these products to control vegetation along the banks for Talmadge Creek.” He also noted that “the listed products are aquatic herbicides and related products that are used to control weeds and nuisance plants. They are not used for oil spill response or oil recovery.”
But this explanation doesn’t entirely absolve the company, and contradicts their initial comment that no chemicals were used “in any part of the clean-up” operation. Additionally, even if these products are classified as herbicides instead of dispersants or surfactants, the material data safety sheet for Cynet Plus Surfactant clearly says to keep the product “out of drains, sewers ditches, and waterways” and "DO NOT release this product into the environment." Robert Naman, the chemist who analyzed Ritter’s tar balls, noted that these herbicides also contain compounds with dispersant-like properties, that “activate and penetrate,” and include “polyethylene glycol... an OL compound very similar to what we found.” Naman also reiterated that a very large quantity of these chemicals would need to have been present in the river in order to be detected. “It would have to be used in the river to treat the oil in the same manner as they did in the BP oil spill,” he said.
Dr. Riki Ott, an oil spill anthropologist who has been assisting Barlond-Smith with community health surveys, suspects that Enbridge was able to use these products because they may belong to a category of chemicals separate from “dispersants” and “bioremediation agents” which “don’t have any reporting requirements.” She was also surprised that none of the chemicals listed in the document “are on the EPA product schedule. It’s supposed to be the only list of products that can be used.”
To Dr. Ott, the adverse health impacts of recent oil spills seem to be amplified by the use of solvents that are “petroleum distillates… the base chemicals for fracking fluids, diluents, and dispersants.” She believes that, whether or not Enbridge’s clean-up operation involved dumping dispersant-like chemicals into the water, tar sands diluted bitumen is already a much more dangerous substance than conventional crude because it combines bitumen with a solvent. “The oil-solvent combination is more toxic than the oil alone. And I am fairly confident saying that same thing with diluents and tar sands, just based on the nature of the chemicals involved,” she said.
Spraying water? Pesticides? Something else? Photo by Michelle Barlond-Smith.
So when she visited Marshall, Michigan, she wasn’t surprised to see the same host of health problems that she encountered after the Gulf spill. “What I saw were seizures… respiratory problems that didn’t clear up… people complaining about tingling appendages, brain fog, confusion, and memory loss, really bad headaches, and this is all symptomatic of central nervous system problems that are a hallmark characteristic from oil or solvent exposure. I saw the skin lesions, hair loss… people have also been complaining of hemorrhoids,” Ott said. Barlond-Smith, similarly, noted that, in conducting health surveys, she is only now beginning to see the long-term impacts of the spill. “I’m starting to see kidney problems, liver problems, gallbladder problems, and the cancers are starting to show up,” she said.
Meanwhile, the Environmental Protection Agency estimates that “180,000 gallons of Line 6B oil (plus or minus 100,000 gallons) remain in the river bottom sediment.” They have ordered Enbridge to dig up the rest of the recoverable oil (“about 12,000 – 18,000 gallons”) and finish cleaning up altogether by December 31st, 2013, leaving the remaining oil behind to collect over time in “sediment traps.” Enbridge has applied for their deadline to be pushed back until March 2014, but their application was deniedafter several earlier extensions were granted.
And as Enbridge is trying to buy themselves more time to clean-up, they are also seeking permission to pump diluted bitumen through many more pipelines across North America—including the proposed Northern Gateway pipeline over British Columbia’s Rocky Mountains and the 38-year-old Line 9 pipeline which runs through the two largest cities in Canada and is, in age, design, and integrity, almost identical to the Kalamazoo’s Line 6B. In each of those communities, Enbridge has encountered public resistance—even as the full scope of their Kalamazoo fuck-up is still coming to light.
For Craig Ritter, like Michelle Barlond-Smith who is committed to exposing the full health impact of this accident, there was never any question that the company must be forced to own up to the mess that they’ve made. “Everybody asks me why I’m doing this. I love the woods and the water, I love the air and the soil and all that stuff, you know? It’s that simple. It’s the right thing to do. I couldn’t have walked away from it and had all these questions… I hope the people that are responsible for getting this product into the river, whether it’s Enbridge themselves or contractors, I hope they’re held accountable and it’s made right. My biggest fear is for the deadline to come and go and Enbridge is given a clean bill and they’re able to walk away, and here the residents of Michigan and the taxpayers are going to be left with whatever type of clean-up or responsibility there is afterwards. And there’s no way in heck that anybody here in Michigan should be held liable or take any accountability for it,” Ritter said. “We’ve been suffering enough from it.”