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Inside Climate News looks at 2010 oil spill on Kalamazoo River

By: Gordon Evans
July 5, 2012

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The non-profit environmental news service Inside Climate News recently published a three part series on the 2010 Kalamazoo River Oil Spill. It’s called The Dilbit Disaster: The biggest oil spill you’ve never heard of. Part 1, Part 2, Part 3 and Epilogue WMUK’s Gordon Evans spoke with Inside Climate News Executive Editor Susan White.

White says Inside Climate News decided to take another look at the ruptured pipeline that spilled over a million gallons of oil on the Kalamazoo River two summers ago and try to put a human face on some of the people affected. White says the massive oil spill never got much national attention. She says there are a couple of reasons for that including the fact that no one died because of the accident and drinking water was not directly affected.

White says an Inside Climate News reporter was doing research in states where the Keystone XL Pipeline will pass through if the project eventually wins final approval. That pipeline will carry the same type of oil that spilled into the Kalamazoo River. White says their reporter found that people in those states were concerned about what would happen if there is a spill. They worried that being in a remote location would make clean up and rescue very difficult. White says Inside Climate News decided to go and look into what happened after the spill near Marshall.

White says it’s important because more dilbit oil is going to be imported into the United States. Dilbit is an abbreviation for diluted bitumen. It’s very heavy oil that won’t flow though a pipeline. White says natural gas condensate is used to dilute the oil so it can be transported. That includes elements including benzene. But White says when the pipeline cracks open, the additives start evaporating, that is why the smell is so overpowering. That also makes the bitumen solid again. It soon begins sinking to the bottom of the river. That’s why officials first believed that the clean-up was going well.

White says the Kalamazoo River oil spill should provide a blue print for future safety regulations and responses. White says it also raises the question of what “are we willing to risk to get energy into this country?” “What are the safeguards that we are willing to put in place?” White says every precaution should be taken to prevent a future spill. And she says an emergency plan should be adapted for this particular type of oil.

Enbridge Energy and the EPA have given different estimates of how much oil was spilled after the pipeline ruptured in 2010. Enbridge says it’s 843,000 gallons while the EPA says it’s over one-million. White says the discrepancy is important because one of the ways that penalties are levied is based on the amount of oil spilled. White says that could mean a lot of money for Enbridge.

Shortly after the interview, the U.S. Transportation Department’s Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration announced a $3.7-million fine against Enbridge. The company has 30 days to respond to the ruling.

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