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Crude Secrets: Tar Sands, Busted Pipelines and a Whistleblower's Day in Court

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On the night of July 25, 2010, a section of the continent's vast pipeline network spilled around a million gallons of chemical-laden crude into western Michigan waterways. Though it was one of the largest inland oil spills in the nation's history, the disaster went largely unnoticed. Most eyes were on the gusher in the Gulf as BP tried to cap the Deepwater Horizon well. But in the debate over our nation's energy future, the Kalamazoo River spill -- and its aftermath -- may prove even more important than the BP blowout.

That's because the ruptured Michigan pipeline was carrying tar sands-derived oil from Alberta, Canada. At a time when the pipeline's operator, energy giant Enbridge, Inc., and its competitors are seeking to greatly expand their pipeline network and the quantity of tar sands oil it carries -- Exhibit A: the proposed Keystone XL project -- understanding the damage caused by a spill of this magnitude and its risks to health, water, and public safety are of enormous national importance.

It's the spill's toxic, destructive aftermath that award-winning journalist Ted Genoways focuses on in his three-part series "The Whistleblower," appearing this week at OnEarth.org. OnEarth magazine covered the Michigan disaster from its earliest days and was among the first to report that what had spewed out of pipeline 6B and flowed for 40 miles down the Kalamazoo River was more than just everyday crude. Oil derived from tar sands is heavier and thicker than most oil; it has to be diluted with a highly volatile chemical mixture just to make it liquid enough to be pumped through pipelines. Yet Enbridge initially lied to OnEarth's reporter and to local officials about the type of oil flowing through its network, claiming it was no more dangerous or difficult to clean up than garden-variety crude -- a deception clearly laid bare by the fact that, nearly two years later, cleanup crews remain hard at work.

The whistleblower of OnEarth's series, a fired cleanup worker named John Bolenbaugh, claims Enbridge -- or at least the contractors it hired -- lied about other things, too, and that he was booted from a shoreline cleanup crew for threatening to expose the truth. Almost every day since, video camera in hand, he has documented the thick black deposits that remain on the river bottoms and creek beds, along with the local people whose lives, health, and property have been damaged. Next week in a Michigan courtroom, a jury will hear his claims and decide whether an Enbridge contractor wrongfully terminated Bolenbaugh to keep him quiet. This case has received no national attention -- until now. Yet this may well be the only occasion when Enbridge is legally held responsible for its questionable cleanup effort -- a lingering trail of oil and lies.

It's a complex story, and Bolenbaugh, to put it mildly, is a complicated character with a shadowy past, whose braggadocio turns off even the folks whose cause he champions. But life is messy that way. We don't always get the heroes we imagine. Yet for the people of Marshall, Michigan, John Bolenbaugh may be the best chance they've got to hold a multinational corporation accountable for its ineptitude and arrogant disregard of their welfare.

Genoways' examination of Bolenbaugh's whistleblower case and its larger implications makes for what the kids today refer to as a "long read." At more than 13,000 words, it's not typical of an online piece. But Genoways (a six-time National Magazine Award winner as the former editor of the Virginia Quarterly Review) has crafted a story that is as compelling and vivid as it is newsworthy. (For those of you not inclined to read a story of that length on the web, "The Whistleblower" will be available next week as a free e-book suitable for easy printing or downloading.) Genoways, meanwhile, will continue to cover this still-unfolding story as Bolenbaugh's case goes before a jury next week. Stay tuned.

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