In July 2010, a pipeline carrying tar sands crude oil began leaking near Marshall, Michigan. By the time it was stopped, almost a million gallons of that oil was in the Kalamazoo river. Six years later, they’ve been given little more than a slap on the wrist for it.
Six years after spilling more than 27,000 barrels of oil into local rivers, Enbridge Energy Limited Partnership is finally facing the music: a $177 million settlement with the U.S. government.
The music is a little soft.
The settlement covers two spills, but one of them was a doozy. On July 25, 2010, an Enbridge pipeline ruptured, ultimately spilling 20,000 barrels of tar sands oil into the Kalamazoo River and becoming the largest ever on-shore tar sands oil spill. Tar sands oil, extracted primarily in Canada and piped into and across the United States, is heavy, thick, and mud-like. Unlike most other oils, it sinks, making it even more difficult to clean up. After the Kalamazoo spill, Enbridge had to dredge the river and then replant native vegetation. At the five-year mark of the spill, the river’s ecology had not fully returned.
“The fines amount to a slap on the wrist, far from what a historic spill like this should garner,” Anthony Swift, Canada director for the Natural Resources Defense Council, said in a statement. “This will do little to force the pipeline industry to think about spills—even historically massive ones—as a cost of doing business.”
Here’s why this was far too small a fine. I was editor of the Michigan Messenger at the time and my two reporters, Todd Heywood and Eartha Melzer, did some amazing, award-winning reporting on this story. They were the ones who figured out that this was tar sands oil, not conventional crude oil. But the MSDS sheets that the EPA and state agencies were working with in their initial cleanup was for conventional crude because Enbridge didn’t tell them that it was tar sands oil.
Why does that matter? Because tar sands oil reacts very differently when it hits water. Sweet crude stays on the surface much more, so you go after it with boom and skimmers. But tar sands oil is far thicker and heavier, so it sinks to the bottom, where skimming the water can’t get to it. But for days after the spill, the cleanup was based on sweet crude and not tar sands oil. Enbridge initially denied that it was tar sands oil, but were forced to admit that it was after our reporting.
Enbridge is a huge company. It’s annual revenue is more than $30 billion. A $177 million fine doesn’t even quality as a slap on the wrist for their malfeasance, negligence and dishonesty.