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Points North

Crude Oil Catastrophes Part 1: 'Our Darkest Day'

Crews respond to an oil spill in Talmadge Creek, a tributary to the Kalamazoo River, in 2010. It’s one of the largest inland oil spills in U.S. history.
U.S. Environmental Protection Agency
Crews respond to an oil spill in Talmadge Creek, a tributary to the Kalamazoo River, in 2010. It’s one of the largest inland oil spills in U.S. history.

A year ago today, a controversial pipeline in the Straits of Mackinac was supposed to shut down. At least that’s what Michigan’s Gov. Gretchen Whitmer said. The Canadian energy company Enbridge challenged that order, and oil still flows under the Straits today.

Line 5 has delivered energy through the Upper Great Lakes since 1953. But environmentalists didn’t start sounding the alarm about the twin pipes until a catastrophic oil spill in 2010. That’s when another Enbridge pipeline burst, sending over a million gallons of crude oil down the Kalamazoo River. Birds were covered in a thick, black sheen. People along the river got sick from toxic chemicals.

This episode, we look at that pivotal event. Enbridge says it changed the way they operate. And many Michiganders say it changed the way they view pipelines — and Enbridge — forever.

It’s part one of a two part series on Points North. There’s no safe way to move crude oil across a continent. But what risks are we willing to take to transport it – and who bears the brunt of those risks?

Host: Morgan Springer
Producer: Patrick Shea
Editor: Morgan Springer
Editing Support: Peter Payette & Taylor Wizner
Music: Marlin Ledin & Santah


MORGAN SPRINGER, HOST: One year ago today, hundreds of people marched towards the Straits of Mackinac, where lakes Michigan and Huron meet.

Governor Gretchen Whitmer had ordered the shutdown of Line 5 beneath the Straits of Mackinac.

PROTESTORS: What do we want? Shut down. When do we want it? Now.

SPRINGER: Enbridge owns and operates the pipeline, which carries crude oil and natural gas liquids along the lakebed for four miles. It’s just one small leg of Line 5’s route from northern Wisconsin to the southern part of Ontario, Canada.

Gov. Whitmer gave Enbridge six months to stop the flow of oil through the Straits. Those six months were up.

PROTESTORS: Enbridge, Enbridge you gotta go!

SPRINGER: Like Whitmer, these demonstrators say Line 5 is outdated. Unsafe. An unacceptable threat to the Great Lakes.

SEAN MCBREARTY: I wanna read the eviction notice we just put on Enbridge’s door here…

SPRINGER: On the microphone is Sean McBrearty – legislative and policy director for Michigan Clean Water Action.

MCBREARTY: ...Concerned citizens of Michigan direct Enbridge, a foreign oil company, to immediately abandon operating Line 5 pipelines in the Straits of Mackinac…

SPRINGER: The company’s response? “No.”

This is Points North: A show about the land, water and inhabitants of the Upper Great Lakes. I’m Morgan Springer.

There’s no safe way to move crude oil across an entire continent. So what risks are we willing to take? And who bears the brunt of that risk?

Over the next couple episodes, we'll be looking at two times when transporting oil went horribly wrong. Today, we’ll hear about a pipeline that ruptured. Next time, we’ll consider the alternative.

Now, a year after that shutdown deadline, Line 5 is still in the water. And we’ve seen a tangled mess of legal battles between Enbridge and the State of Michigan.

PATRICK SHEA, BYLINE: That’s right, there’s Michigan v. Enbridge, Enbridge v. Michigan, Nessel v Enbridge …

SPRINGER: That’s reporter Patrick Shea.

SHEA: Also, Canada’s gotten involved in court, and so have Tribal nations across Michigan, Wisconsin, and Ontario. And as all this litigation unfolds, slowly, now is a good time to zoom out.

SPRINGER: Right. And Patrick, we heard in that opening scene that a lot of people are really opposed to this pipeline. And if you live in northern Michigan, you’ve probably seen the yard signs – “shut down Line 5” or “no oil in our Straits.” When and why did this become such a big concern?

SHEA: That question’s right at the heart of today's story.

This pipeline has been supplying energy to the region since 1953.

But environmentalists didn’t start sounding the alarm about Line 5 in the Straits until a little over a decade ago.

I asked Bob Lehto why that is. He’s the regional operations manager for Enbridge.

BOB LEHTO: I think that unfortunately it probably stems out of our darkest day, in Marshall, back in 2010.

NEWSCAST COMPILATION: They’ve just declared a state of emergency here in Calhoun County … There is no escaping the oil, you can smell it everywhere, you can even feel it in your throat … We’ve just heard word there is a no swimming no fishing advisory for this area … I’m told that there’s very toxic chemicals in this oil … 

SHEA: Marshall, Michigan is a small community on the banks of the Kalamazoo River. It has that classic small-town charm, the kind of place where the names of high school football players are on display downtown. And where “downtown” is really just three blocks of one street. It’s not the kind of place you’d expect to get national media attention. But then came July 26, 2010.

CHERYL VOSBURG: It was a nice day, I go to work like at 7 o’clock in the morning…

SHEA: Cheryl Vosburg {VOSS-burg} worked for the city of Marshall back then, as the environmental programs coordinator. And she lived a few miles out of town.

VOSBURG: Probably right when I hit the city limits, I could clearly smell something in the air. It was a very invasive odor.

SHEA: That’s when Jay Wesley’s phone rang. He works for the Michigan Department of Natural Resources. Jay says the call itself wasn’t too out of the ordinary. It was about an oil spill in Calhoun County.

WESLEY: An oil spill to us is usually a tanker truck flips over or, there is an accident with a diesel truck and they're calling it oil, but it's really diesel. So it didn't think much of it, just kind of hopped in a vehicle and headed out there. And when I got to Marshall, I had to cross the Kalamazoo River. And as I was crossing the bridge, I noticed half the river was black.”

SHEA: The night before, an Enbridge pipeline, Line 6B, had ruptured near Talmadge Creek. That’s a tiny little stream that drains into the Kalamazoo River.

WESLEY: They had some of their own employees responding. You know, they had a limited amount of booms.

SHEA: A boom is a physical barrier that floats in the water, and is used to contain oil.

WESLEY: The flow was so heavy that it wasn’t stopping much at all. You couldn’t see any water, it was just oil flowing down this creek. So at that point I really knew we had a problem on our hands.

SHEA: A few miles downstream, Cheryl Vosburg was now watching from the Ceresco dam. And even that couldn’t stop the oil.

VOSBURG: It looked kind of like smooth black obsidian flowing over the dam. I thought it was – it was – a very traumatic, overwhelming environmental tragedy. And I stood there and I felt really sad because I thought how in the world will they ever begin to even make a dent in this, start cleaning it up? It was so much oil that I really thought it would probably eventually hit Lake Michigan.

SHEA: The spill was finally contained about 40 miles downstream of Talmage Creek, 80 river miles from Lake Michigan. And in the days that followed, first responders - like Jay - rushed to the river.

WESLEY: It was pretty much chaos for a few days, I would say. Almost immediately people were calling in, seeing Canadian geese that were showing up oiled. They couldn’t fly. So we did what we could to capture them, but then what?

SHEA: At first, they caught oiled birds, turtles, muskrats – all sorts of wildlife – and sent them to local rehab centers. But those quickly ran out of room. Then, Enbridge helped set up a cleaning facility near the river. But still, it wasn’t easy to catch and clean wildlife.

WESLEY: Conditions were not safe for staff to be on the river for almost a week. This event happened at a terrible time when we had a huge rain event. The water was really high, fast flowing.

SHEA: And the floodwaters weren’t the only thing that made this river unsafe.

WESLEY: With this being tar sands, they add a chemical called benzene to it.”

SHEA: Benzene is just one part of a chemical cocktail mixed with heavy tar sands oil, to sort-of liquify it — make it move down the pipe.

WESLEY: And benzene itself is not good to breathe in. You needed an actual respirator to even be out there, or else you’d get really light-headed. It’s not good.

SHEA: But the people living right along the river – they didn’t have respirators when the spill happened. Calls started coming into Michigan’s poison control center as people reported headaches, nausea, vomiting, shortness of breath. A report from the state’s health department said that 145 individuals received medical care in the weeks that followed, saying their symptoms started right after the spill. Dee Holton was one of them.

DEE HOLTON: I had to go see my lung doctor, get a nebulizer and some inhalers.

SHEA: Dee says he never needed a nebulizer for his lungs before, but used one for three months after the spill.

DEE HOLTON. And the odor was … it was really hard to breathe. It was overwhelming.

SHEA: He says his breathing’s never been the same. He and his wife Julie Holton lived near the river’s edge, in Battle Creek.

JULIE HOLTON: I just got my nose plugged up and I got really nauseated and had headaches for a while.

SHEA: There were evacuations of some neighborhoods along the river. Enbridge paid for hotels for those families. But the Holtons say they were told their house was far enough away from the spill. They could stay put. That didn’t make a lot of sense to them.

DEE HOLTON: We could stand in our backyard and we could look down at the river.

JULIE HOLTON: It’s 500 feet.

SHEA: They kept the windows closed to keep the fumes out. This was late July, and they didn’t have air conditioning.

JULIE HORTON: I slept on the floor for a couple days, because I couldn’t stand the smell and it was so hot.”

SHEA: At that point did you consider staying away from the river for a while or did you…

DEE HOLTON: We couldn’t, we couldn’t afford to go anywhere.

SHEA: Eventually, benzene and other toxic chemicals evaporated off the river and dispersed.

Do you feel that there are any lingering effects from the exposure?

HOLTON: Well, I got a nodule on my right lung. We’re watching it. 

SHEA: Dr. Riki Ott is a marine toxicologist. She’s studied oil spills ever since the Exxon-Valdez spill in 1989. When she noticed people getting sick and staying sick, she started looking into the human health impacts of these spills. And that work has brought her all over the country.

In the summer of 2011, she spoke at public meetings in towns along the Kalamazoo River. She asked people if they believed their health was impacted by the spill. And their answer:

OTT: Yes, it was overwhelmingly yes. Every community. ‘I’ve had this cold.’ ‘I can’t shake it.’ ‘I’m fatigued.’ ‘I can’t seem to shake it.’ ‘Low grade headaches, low grade cough. I mean that’s not supposed to be with you forever.

SHEA: In recent years, studies in Spain, Korea and along the Gulf Coast have associated these symptoms with exposure to oil spills.

Many people who lived along the Kalamazoo River claim they still suffer today from that exposure in 2010. Some have lost loved ones to sudden, aggressive cancers, and they blame it on the spill. Benzene is a known carcinogen. But those deaths — and the growth on Dee Holton’s lung — there’s just no way to confirm that the spill was the cause. The data’s not there.

OTT: I absolutely think if there was evidence of harm, with people showing what’s now called the characteristic suite of symptoms from an oil spill exposure, that there was grounds for a long term study.

SHEA: But a long-term study was never done. The Calhoun County Health Officer at the time told me he did ask the federal government to conduct one. Those toxicologists said the levels of benzene weren’t high enough to warrant that kind of research. But Riki says our understanding of the dangers of these chemicals … keeps changing.

OTT: I mean we’re not even a generation out, really, from when we used to pour oil down the storm drains. Remember that? Because everyone thought it was so benign, just dump it down the storm drain.

SHEA: Do you think that there’s an adequate understanding of the impacts of oil spills on human health today?

OTT: Science-wise, yes. Public health wise, no. What needs to change now, policy-wise, now that we’ve learned this new science? Well, I can tell you nothing’s changed policy-wise but scientists all know that oil is more toxic than we thought.

SHEA: It took almost two years for crews to clean up oil on the surface of the river and the floodplain. It took two more years to recover the submerged tar sands on the river bottom.

And during that time, details started to come to light. More than a million gallons spilled from Line 6B into the Kalamazoo River – possibly the largest inland oil spill in U.S. history. Though, a spill from a different Enbridge line in Minnesota is a close contender.

And what many people found most concerning… is how it happened in the first place.

Later investigation by the National Transportation Safety Board, revealed that Enbridge had known about structural issues with Line 6B for five years … and neglected to make repairs.

And when the pipe ruptured, it took Enbridge 17 hours to realize what was even happening. In fact, when a problem was first detected, operators at the control center in Edmonton, Alberta … increased the pumping pressure. That mistake accounted for more than 80 percent of the total oil spilled.

For many in Michigan, what happened in Marshall has led to an increased fear of oil pipelines. And… resentment of the company responsible.

MCBREARTY: Enbridge thinks they have every right to kill our planet, endanger the Great Lakes…

BETH WALLACE: They can say they’ve learned their lesson, but they have not earned my trust.

LAWRENCE WELSH: This Canadian invasion of our soil must stop.

MCBREARTY: So we’re here to tell them enough is enough.

SHEA: After the spill, a number of organizations sprang up in the state. Their sole purpose was shutting down Line 5. They’ve raised money and mobilized citizens across Michigan.

Everyone agrees that Enbridge made mistakes in Marshall. And Bob Lehto, the regional operations manager, says his company accepts all the blame.

LEHTO: We wear that black eye. And we always will. Our culture is one where we’ve sort of moved from being very ashamed of what happened to a point now where we sort of ponder the past, but learn from it.

SHEA: Today, every new employee is given a ring made of steel from Line 6B. Bob says it's a way of remembering what happened - and a reminder to never let it happen again.

LEHTO: And the only good option is to get better. And that’s exactly what we’ve done.

SHEA: He says, since the spill in Marshall, Enbridge has taken measures to safeguard Line 5.

LEHTO: Your biggest risk to a pipeline is that someone doesn’t know it’s there, or otherwise unintentionally comes in contact with it. Well out in the Straits of Mackinac, that risk is anchors on ships.

SHEA: Enbridge has installed high-tech cameras that can zoom in on passing ships, and make sure anchors are properly stowed. There’s also a patrol boat on-call for up-close inspection.

And then, there’s the tunnel Enbridge wants to build. It would encase a new section of Line 5 underneath the lake bed.

LEHTO: By taking the pipes off the lakebed and putting them in the tunnel, we decrease the risk of an anchor strike to zero. There is no more risk anymore.

SHEA: When all was said and done, Enbridge paid well over a billion dollars cleaning up the Kalamazoo River. And almost everyone involved with that cleanup says the company did a thorough job, and cooperated with state and federal oversight. And on top of that, Enbridge paid for five new parks with pavilions and boat launches.

JAYNAN MONTAGUE: Some people think Enbridge is great, because they didn’t have oil in their front yard.

SHEA: Jaynan Montague isn’t one of them. She used to live in a house on Talmadge Creek. She could see ground zero through her kitchen window.

MONTAGUE: We built that house in the first year we were married, in 1973. So we raised our family there.

SHEA: Jaynan has since sold that house. Enbridge offered to buy all the homes closest to the spill at market value.

SHEA:Did you think about staying in your house? Was that a consideration?

MONTAGUE: For a time. We talked about it. But by then, I didn’t have much faith that they’d be able to clean it up properly. And I wasn’t up for the stress of it. And it didn’t feel like home anymore. It really did not feel like home anymore.

SHEA: Did this make you start thinking about pipelines more?

MONTAGUE: Absolutely, and you know I drive a car, I’m not anti-everything, But the fact that there is a pipeline under the Straits of Mackinac that is older than I am. And I’m 67. It’s just, I’m against that pipeline, in that place, run by that pipeline company.

SHEA: If you’ve never been to the Straits of Mackinac, here’s a little bit about this place.

This narrow waterway is at the heart of what some would consider the world’s largest lake. By a longshot.

Lakes Michigan and Huron have different names, Sure. But hydrologically, they’re inseparable. And the source of drinking water for more than 13 million people. The volume of water that moves through the Straits each day is 10 times greater than what passes over Niagara Falls.

And because of these strong currents, experts in hydrodynamics have called it the worst possible place for an oil spill in the Great Lakes. They’ve run simulations that show an oil spill could impact 400 miles of shoreline. That’s more than the entire Gulf Coast of Texas.

That’s why so many people want to see Line 5 shut down. But the thing is… shutting down a pipeline doesn’t eliminate risk. It just moves it somewhere else.

NEWSCAST COMPILATION: Devastation from that train explosion in Quebec is becoming apparent tonight … 72 tanker cars loaded with oil broke loose … just about everyone here wondering how many people they know have been lost …

SHEA: That’s coming up in part two. Next time on Points North.

SPRINGER: Reporter Patrick Shea wrote and produced today’s episode.

It was edited by me, Morgan Springer.

Additional editing support from Peter Payette and Taylor Wizner.

Music for today’s episode by Marlin Ledin and Santah.

Special thanks to Beth Wallace, Ryan Duffy, Christine Kosmowski {cause-MOW-ski}, Steve Hamilton, Ken Kornheiser (CORN-hizer), and Dee Holton Jr. for help with this episode.

You can find more environmental stories from the Upper Great Lakes at Points North Radio dot org, or wherever you get your podcasts.

And while you’re at it, go ahead and subscribe to the show and rate and review Points North, as well.

Have a great weekend.

Patrick Shea was a natural resources reporter at Interlochen Public Radio. Before joining IPR, he worked a variety of jobs in conservation, forestry, prescribed fire and trail work. He earned a degree in natural resources from Northland College in Ashland, Wisconsin, and his interest in reporting grew as he studied environmental journalism at the University of Montana's graduate school.