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Erich Pica Headshot

Remember Kalamazoo -- and Fight for a Tar Sands-Free Future

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Susan Connolly had a feeling something just wasn't right. On the morning of July 26, 2010, she was preparing to take her two young children to daycare when she noticed a strange odor thick in the air. At that point in the day, Susan didn't know that a tar sands oil pipeline had ruptured in the middle of the night approximately two miles north of her home in Marshall, Michigan or that this would result in the largest and most expensive onshore oil disaster in U.S. history.

That night, her four-and-a-half-year-old son was vomiting and within a few days, her two-year-old daughter developed a strange rash. Soon enough, others in her community were experiencing migraines, nausea, diarrhea and burning in the eyes and throat -- all while county and federal health officials denied the connection between the sudden widespread illnesses and the spill.

Susan Connolly and I have never met, but I can tell you that we share a few things in common: we are both parents who would do anything to keep our children from harm and we are both connected to the great state of Michigan. I grew up in Bainbridge Township, 70 miles west of the head of the spill. Two years ago today, oil giant and pipeline operator Enbridge spilled more than 1,148,229 gallons (what the EPA estimates it's recovered) of tar sands oil into Talmadge Creek and the Kalamazoo River, threatening public health and saturating the local ecosystem before almost reaching the Great Lakes.

This spill -- and Susan's family's pain -- was preventable.

2012-07-25-enbridge6brupture.jpgRecent media and regulator scrutiny has catalogued the many systemic problems that plagued the Kalamazoo pipeline disaster and the ensuing cleanup. The most striking problem was the assumption of what was truly being pumped through the pipeline. When first responders arrived on the scene, they thought the six-and-a-half foot tear in the ruptured pipeline 6B was oozing conventional crude. But the pipeline was spilling tar sands oil, a toxic, corrosive substance that acts more like tar than oil in water.

The very nature of tar sands -- heavy and abrasive -- points to why tar sands pipelines have an abysmal safety record. Transporting raw tar sands oil through pipelines is like moving hot, liquid sandpaper that grinds and burns its way through a pipe, thus increasing the chance that weakened pipelines will rupture. These pipelines have a spill rate three times the national average for conventional oil pipelines in the Midwest.

But a drastically increased likelihood of spills is only where the problems begin. When spilled, tar sands oil sinks in water, leaving a plume of chemicals like benzene on the surface to evaporate, simultaneously polluting air and water. Clean up costs for the Kalamazoo disaster have well surpassed a record-breaking $800 million because of the unique challenges of recovering heavy tar sands oil, an unprecedented task that's left EPA officials scratching their heads.

The already high-risk 6B pipeline's disaster potential was compounded by Enbridge's own incompetence. Enbridge appallingly ignored alarm bells and instead twice pumped more oil into pipeline 6B before shutting if off after 17 long hours. The company's record makes the claims of its emergency response plan -- that a rupture would be detected in a mere five minutes and the damaged segment closed three minutes after that -- laughable. A damning National Transportation Safety Board report released several weeks ago noted that Enbridge knew about the pipeline's vulnerabilities as early as 2005 but repeatedly chose not to act.

And while Enbridge was reckless, the pipeline regulators we've entrusted to guard the public interest were mostly feckless. NTSB chairperson Deborah Hersman, referencing the agency's report, said that Enbridge and the regulatory agency in charge of pipeline oversight handled the disaster as haplessly as "the Keystone Cops."

Earlier this month, the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration proposed a $3.7 million civil penalty for Enbridge's mishandling of the Kalamazoo spill. That's the largest fine in the agency's history -- but it's a pittance if you consider that the fine is less than half of a percent of the total cost of the spill, not counting the irreversible damage done to the environment and public health. Put another way, Enbridge was fined just $3.22 per gallon of oil spilled according to EPA estimates.

In leaving more than a million gallons of toxic tar sands on the Kalamazoo's riverbed, Enbridge and its complicit regulators took away something important, too. In testifying before Congress on the impacts of the Kalamazoo disaster, impacted resident Deb Miller said:

I did not choose to breathe that foul air. I did not choose to lose a summer to... vacuum trucks, fan boats and helicopters and strangers on my river banks. ... I did not choose to close a business and I certainly did not choose to watch the geese struggle while covered in oil. Enbridge made that decision for me.

Two years later, clean up and remediation along the impacted river continues, even in the recently re-opened areas. Property values and the local community have been decimated. Residents near the epicenter of the disaster in Marshall have experienced lingering health effects from the spill's toxins. But Michiganders embody the best of Midwestern values -- hard work, taking care of one's family and community and do-it-yourself gumption. It's people like Susan and Deb and all those spill-impacted families who are speaking up that will help heal and rebuild their community.

And they're now part of a larger fight. Their voices are bolstered by the resistance of indigenous communities in Canada paying for tar sands development with their lives and cultural heritage. They're joined in solidarity this week by people across the country from Seattle, Washington to Portland, Maine solemnizing the Kalamazoo disaster and taking a stand against dirty and dangerous tar sands oil flowing through more land and water.

More than simply a testament to one company's pathological endangerment of the environment and public health, the Kalamazoo tragedy should serve as a powerful cautionary tale. Profit-hungry oil corporations like Enbridge and TransCanada continue to scheme up proposals to introduce or increase the volume of tar sands oil through communities in the Pacific Northwest, the Gulf Coast, New England, Ontario, Quebec and British Columbia.

We know that the risks of the tar sands oil industry don't stop with spills like the one that upended lives along the Kalamazoo. Our nation's pre-eminent climate scientist, Dr. James Hansen, has warned that burning through the tar sands -- source of the world's dirtiest oil -- would mean "game over for the climate." Even if you don't live in the path of an existing or proposed tar sands pipeline, you should be concerned that a climate system spiraling out of control is already on our doorstep.

I, and a growing and powerful movement of people across the country, are fed up with letting rich fossil fuel corporations decide when and where they can irrevocably damage our communities and radically alter the climate system we depend on for survival. Today, on the two-year anniversary of the Kalamazoo spill and in the midst of a summer of unprecedented extreme weather, the human and economic costs of our addiction to 19th-century dirty energy are hitting too close to home. Today and every day, it's up to all of us to remember Kalamazoo, to stand with communities on the front lines of the climate war and to continue to fight for a tar sands-free, justice-fueled future.

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