07/27/2011 06:25 pm ET | Updated Sep 26, 2011

Pipeline Problems: The Mess Remains One Year After Kalamazoo River Oil Spill

Visit NRDCs Switchboard BlogAt this time last year, I was a very unhappy man. Hundreds of thousands of gallons of oil were speeding down the Kalamazoo River towards the Great Lakes from southwest Michigan after a pipeline burst in the wee hours of the night. My staff was concerned because it looked to us as though the petroleum in the river was of a particularly nasty variety -- tar sands -- but nobody seemed to understand or care despite the likelihood of an even uglier mess. Looking back a year later, the cleanup continues on the banks of the Kalamazoo River and it is clear that we were asking the right questions. The oil spill packed a bigger wallop than anyone expected at the time because of the unique properties of tar sands oil. In the last twelve months we've learned a lot about the particular type of tar sands oil that spurted into Michigan's waters. I must say, I am not comforted by what we have found or the lessons that seem unlearned from the spill.

Last July, we made inquiries with a number of authorities trying to get information on what had spilled after noticing that the pipeline likely serviced BP's Whiting Refinery in Indiana, one of the biggest refiners of Alberta's heavy tar sands oil. Knowing that tar sands oil is considered by many to be the dirtiest on the planet due to its increased levels of heavy metals, assorted contaminants and higher carbon liabilities, we were concerned. In the havoc of the spill, we found technical information hard to come by and little understanding of why we were asking the question -- so we worked with OnEarth magazine to send a reporter to the spill site to get some answers. She was stonewalled. Told over and over again that tar sands oil was not involved... Until she found the source of the oil and helped force the CEO of Enbridge Energy, owners of the pipeline, to admit that the gunk that had spilled was indeed tar sands oil, despite repeated assertions to the contrary.

Why does it matter? After all, once we established it was tar sands oil, the EPA said that the type of oil would not impact how they moved forward with the cleanup. You see, tar sands are not your typical oil. It is a thick, heavy, dense petroleum steamed or strip mined out of Alberta's sandy soil that is the consistency of peanut butter at room temperature. Honestly, at the time, we did not even really appreciate how bad the news would be. It has since become clear that raw tar sands oil -- diluted bitumen (or "DilBit') -- spilled in Michigan. This stuff is fundamentally different from other forms of oil moving through American pipelines. It is so thick and sludgy that it requires a mix of condensed natural gas to thin it in combination with added heat and pressure just to move it through a pipeline. At the time of the spill, it seems nobody was aware that this form of petroleum was in the mix. And lack of transparency is a problem, given some of DilBit's unique properties. First responders were not warned that outside of the pressurized environment of the pipeline, the liquefied gases separate (creating a potentially explosive and deadly cloud rife with benzene and noxious gases) and the heavy bitumen sinks to the bottom of the river. The state of Michigan released a report showing that hundreds of people along the river have suffered through an array of respiratory illnesses thanks to their exposure to the spilled DilBit. And, of course, cleanup crews were focused on skimming the surface, not the much bigger mess gumming up the river bottom.

OnEarth sent the same reporter back recently to check up on the cleanup. This is how she described the accident:

When that combination, known as DilBit, spilled out of the ruptured pipeline, the benzene and other chemicals in the mixture went airborne, forcing mandatory evacuations of surrounding homes (many of which were later bought by Enbridge because their owners couldn't safely return), while the thick, heavy bitumen sank into the water column and coated the river and lake bottom, mixing with sediment and suffocating bottom-dwelling plants, animals, and micro-organisms.

Surface skimmers and vacuums were no help, and a full year later, EPA officials and scientists are still working on a plan to remove submerged oil from about 200 acres of river and lake bottom. EPA officials had given Enbridge an August 31 deadline to get all the oil out, but they now say a full cleanup could take years. "Where we thought we might be winding down our piece of the response, we're actually ramping back up," said Mark Durno, one of EPA's on-scene coordinators. "The submerged oil is a real story -- it's a real eye-opener... In larger spills we've dealt with before, we haven't seen nearly this footprint of submerged oil, if we've seen any at all."

Look, this isn't just me -- watch the excellent video below put together by the Kalamazoo Gazette this week. In particular, check out the EPA staffer's nearly identical description of the spill and his thoughts about how this spill cleanup was completely counter to EPA's expectations going in. He notes that: "I don't think anybody anticipated that we would spend... more time dealing with the submerged rather than surface oil..."

Well, we did.

And Enbridge should have... if they were willing to fess up to what was coursing through their aging lines.

But history repeats itself. Last month ExxonMobil said that tar sands oil was not involved in the Yellowstone River spill and the stuff had never run through those pipelines. Oops. A few days later, Reuters proved them wrong---surprising both state and federal regulators. We still don't know what kind of tar sands oil was in that line. It will be interesting to find out if DilBit could have been involved in that mess too.

As our January report on pipeline safety showed, pipelines transporting DilBit are at greater risk of busting. Alberta's newer lines, designed to move this stuff, burst far more often than American pipelines. But now that DilBit is coming with much greater frequency (Canadians used to partially refine it north of the border before sending it to us, but have maxed out that capacity -- we will be getting 1.5 million barrels a day of this stuff in the next decade as deliveries ratchet up), so it is likely that Kalamazoo will be a cleanup learning lab, gleaning information that will be sadly more and more important should our incident rates catch up with those in Canada. The Enbridge line that burst in Michigan was built in the 60s and not designed for the higher temperatures and pressure it was running at... which seems like a problem to me. But regulators don't have specific rules regarding this new and more corrosive type of oil -- so we are left with aging, ticking time bombs. As ugly as things are along the Kalamazoo, it would have been far worse had the oil hit Lake Michigan. And the same pipeline runs through areas much closer to the Lakes. It seems time to revisit the way we deal with these lines.

This week the anniversary of the Kalamazoo River spill brings a bit of horrible irony. Do you know how they marked the anniversary in DC today? With a vote to speed up approval of a proposed mega-pipeline which would run DilBit from Alberta all the way down to Texas over some of the nation's most sensitive water resources. Yup, the House of Representatives passed a bill to circumvent environmental analyses of the Keystone XL project in an attempt to force the administration to make a decision on the 1700-mile line, whether all the questions are answered or not. One of the chief advocates moving for this action is Congressman Fred Upton of Michigan. Guess what river runs through his district...? A year ago, I was an unhappy man. After the vote to double down on our pipeline problems, I might feel even worse now...

This post originally appeared on NRDC's Switchboard blog.