Five states file new lawsuit against federal government to protect Great Lakes from Asian carp
Great Lakes Environmental Law Center sends notice of intent to sue Enbridge over pipeline oil spill

Enbridge pipeline spills over a million gallons of crude oil into Talmadge Creek and the Kalamazoo River

Here are the facts: On Monday July 26, a 30-inch pipeline in Marshall, Michigan belonging to Enbridge Inc. burst.  The U.S. EPA estimates over 1 million gallons (over 23,000 barrels) of crude oil spilled into Talmadge Creek, a waterway which feeds into the Kalamazoo River.  On July 28, the U.S. EPA assumed the role of Federal On-Scene Coordinator pursuant to the Oil Pollution Act of 1990, which gives EPA responsibility for inland (rather than offshore) oil spills.  The EPA is now coordinating and directing the response activities carried out by Enbridge and government agencies, and has issued a removal order to Enbridge.

The spill site currently includes a 30-mile stretch of the Kalamazoo River between Marshall and Battle Creek and nearby marshlands, residential areas, farmland, and businesses.  As a result of air quality monitoring showing unsafe levels of benzene, local officials are evacuating 30-50 households in the area.  Local health officials have also issued a water advisory for any residents that rely on well water near Talmadge Creek and the Kalamazoo River.

In addition to protecting the health of nearby residents, the most immediate concern is preventing the spill from moving down the Kalamazoo River into Lake Michigan.  Heavy rains and resulting high water levels make this task even more challenging. 

We’ll be dealing with this spill, and the legal and policy implications, for months to come.  For now, here are three points to consider when you see the images of oil covering the Kalamazoo River:

1. The Enbridge pipeline that burst is a section of one of the largest pipeline systems in the world, connecting the tar sands oil fields in Canada with refineries throughout the industrial cities of the Midwest.  With this burst pipeline and resulting spill, it’s clear that every step of the tar sands oil production, transportation, and refinery process poses significant threats to freshwater quality and public health. 

Tar sand strip mining has wreaked environmental havoc on the landscape and freshwater in Canada.  The pollution from refining tar sands crude directly impacts Great Lakes water and regional air quality, as demonstrated by BP’s Whiting, Indiana Refinery, which connects to the burst pipeline and is located on the shores of Lake Michigan.   A few years ago, a regional fight broke out between Indiana and Chicago officials over water pollution from the BP Whiting refinery - the Chicago Park Superintendent famously complained that “they can keep their pollution on their side of the lake” when Indiana officials would not let him testify at a hearing involving a water pollution permit for the refinery expansion. 

While environmental groups had a recent success to control air pollution from the refinery, the spill shows that the environmental impacts of tar sands oil production are not limited to the refineries in cities and tar sands fields in Canada.

2. The proposed state Constitutional amendment to ban oil drilling in Michigan’s Great Lakes that has been championed by House Democrats such as my state representative, Rebekah Warren of Ann Arbor, would do absolutely nothing about this pipeline spill. 

I’d probably vote for the proposed Constitutional ban, although it seems to be motivated by politics in advance of the 2010 election far more than any genuine policy concern, as oil drilling is already effectively banned by Michigan in the Great Lakes.  But if Rep. Warren and other state leaders are really concerned about protecting Michigan’s environment and people from oil spills, they should focus their attention on meaningful and substantive reforms – such as better regulation of pipeline siting and safety, increased resources for inspection, and vigorous enforcement of the law.  Constitutional amendments and political grandstanding on non-issues is no substitute for real governance and problem solving, and is a disservice to Michigan’s citizens that deserve more from their elected leaders. 

3. Political leaders, most notably President Obama and Governor Granholm, have jumped all over the spill with the tough talk and blame game rhetoric typical of politicians, especially in an election year.  Do you want to know if the government is really serious about holding Enbridge accountable?  Let’s see how aggressively the government pursues fines for this spill.  Based on the estimated size of the spill, Enbridge could face over $25 million in fines under the Clean Water Act.  And the fines could go up to almost $100 million if the spills resulted from Enbridge’s “gross negligence or willful misconduct” – a good possibility given Enbridge’s history of insufficient monitoring of corrosion on the pipeline.  Let’s hope the government’s law enforcement and policy solutions live up to the politicians’ rhetoric, so that perhaps future spills can be prevented.