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July 20, 2012

We Are the Kalamazoo

Susan Connolly lives in Marshall, a picturesque small town in southern Michigan. The highlights of the year in Marshall are usually the Labor Day historic home tour and the annual Christmas Parade. On July 25, 2010, though, an oil company called Enbridge spilled more than a million gallons of toxic tar sands crude from a pipeline into Talmadge Creek, just a few miles from Susan's house. As the spill spread to the Kalamazoo River, Susan, her husband, and their two small children could smell the fumes from their home the next morning. But it wasn't until later that night that they realized something was seriously wrong:

My husband and I dropped off our children and headed to work. We still didn't know anything was going on. We just knew there was an odor in the air. When we picked up the children that evening, people were talking about something strange going on. The spill was now on the news. But nothing official, no warnings. That evening, my son was throwing up. My daughter, within a few days of the spill, developed a strange rash. My daughter was only two, and my son was four-and-a-half.

Children and staff were getting sick at the daycare -- migraine headaches, nausea, diarrhea, strange rashes, burning in the eyes and throat. None of the health officials would associate the sickness to the oil spill. They wouldn't say much of anything.

Last week, federal regulators handed down a $3.7 million penalty along with a stinging indictment of Enbridge for its negligent management of the pipeline, its incompetent emergency response, and its lack of transparency. Enbridge's first reaction to the spill had been to act like the substance pouring from the six-and-a-half-foot gash in its pipe was conventional crude oil -- rather than highly toxic tar sands mixed with volatile cancer-causing chemicals.

Public health officials -- the local, state and federal health experts who families relied on during the crisis -- also downplayed the risk. When the thick tar sands sank into the river, though, the toxic chemicals that are used to thin out the asphalt-like tar sands evaporated into the air.

Susan remembers asking whether her children were at a higher risk:

I'm a parent, trying to make decisions about what to do in a crisis, and I'm told by the Health Department, by the county and the state, and by the unified command that everything is okay, that our children are fine, our children are safe.

For two years they said, "Oh, no. It's all the same readings, it's all the same levels, it's all the same exposure." And now, two years later, they say that children are at a higher risk. How dare they do that to us!

In fact, both Enbridge and the federal regulators whose job it is to ensure the safety of these kinds of pipelines knew as early as 2005 that the pipeline was unsafe.


A week or two before the spill, Enbridge had requested yet another delay on a Corrective Action Order to repair a flaw in their pipeline. They knew about a problem in their pipe and used bureaucratic maneuvering to put off fixing it for years. Federal pipeline-safety authorities knew about the problems too. It is a shared negligence.

Although Enbridge knew its pipeline was ready to fail, the actual break went undetected for more than 17 hours, in spite of supposedly high-tech leak-detection technology. Twice, Enbridge pressurized the broken pipe until, finally, a gas company employee on the ground alerted the company to a problem. Deborah Hersman, chairman of the National Transportation Safety Board, put it this way: "Learning about Enbridge's poor handling of the rupture, you can't help but think of the Keystone Kops... Why didn't they recognize what was happening? What took so long?"

To this day, poison remains in the 38 miles of Talmadge Creek and the Kalamazoo River that were contaminated.

Susan is incredulous:

Come see what the river looks like, even after a $800 million cleanup. Come see what the riverbank looks like, and just how much submerged oil is still here. All you have to do is agitate the water, and it comes up. Enbridge says there are still 390 acres of submerged oil. And somehow the cleanup is done?

Susan Connolly is brave to speak out about her experience and her fears. She's facing down wealthy oil companies that wield enormous influence with the same public officials whose job it is supposed to be to protect her and her family. Here at the Sierra Club, we're doing everything we can to support families like Susan's around the nation that are threatened by tar sands pipelines. But too many Americans still don't realize how dangerous tar sands oil really is.

Beginning this weekend, the Sierra Club and its allies will hold We Are the Kalamazoo events across North America to mark this two-year anniversary of the largest and most toxic inland oil spill in U.S. history. Human oil spills and other actions are planned in Michigan, Connecticut, Maine, Nebraska, New Hampshire, Oklahoma, Portland-Montréal (Canada), South Dakota, and Washington. The events will culminate in a rally for a "tar sands-free" Northeast outside the New England Governors' Conference in Vermont in response to Big Oil's plans to move tar sands through New England.

Next week, the National Academy of Sciences will begin a scientific review of the dangers of transporting tar sands crude from Alberta, Canada, to U.S. ports. The scientists and engineers on the National Academy's panel have been asked by Congress to determine whether tar sands pipelines are more dangerous than conventional crude oil pipelines. These scientists should bring their best scientific thinking to the job of assessing the real risks of tar sands pipelines, but they shouldn't forget that this is no academic exercise.

Real people and families will be forced to live with the consequences of tar sands catastrophes like the Enbridge spill. The National Academy panel should accept Susan Connolly's standing offer to come visit Marshall, Michigan, and the Kalamazoo River. They should see for themselves what a tar sands disaster looks like.


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