When a tar sands pipeline owned by Enbridge ruptured in July 2010, John Bolenbaugh was one of the workers sent in to clean up the spill, which released more than a million gallons of heavy, highly toxic oil and chemical additives into the Kalamazoo River near Marshall, Mich. What Mr. Bolenbaugh experienced and witnessed compelled him to raise awareness of the dangers of tar sands oil and the Keystone XL Pipeline, a proposed project that would funnel billions of gallons of the tar sands or diluted bitumen “dilbit” through the middle of the U.S.
According to the Arkansas Times, Mr. Bolenbaugh was fired from SET Environmental in October 2010, the company contracted by Enbridge to clean up the Kalamazoo spill, after he refused to cover up and hide the extent of the damage. After his termination, he filed a whistleblower lawsuit, which was settled out of court for an undisclosed sum in April 2012.
Now Mr. Bolenbaugh devotes much of his time to speaking out against the special dangers of tar sands oil, which contains dozens of chemical additives to facilitate its movement through the pipeline. When spilled, tar sands oil is also many times more difficult and costly to clean up than conventional crude, such as that spilled after BP’s Deepwater Horizon disaster in April 2010.
Recently, Mr. Bolenbaugh’s conviction that tar sands oil comes at a huge cost to people and the environment was bolstered again by the March 29 spill in Mayflower, Arkansas. There, the 70-year-old Pegasus pipeline owned by ExxonMobil ruptured and spilled well over 200,000 gallons of diluted Wabasca heavy crude mined from Canadian tar sands into a suburban community.
The Mayflower event was so indicative of the dangers that Mr. Bolenbaugh warns against, it compelled him to travel to Arkansas to meet with people in the community hard hit by the toxic spill. There he documented the concerns of Mayflower residents about their health and their community.
“The residents are pissed,” Mr. Bolenbough told the Arkansas Times. “Exxon, of course, is doing their little PR campaign that everything is fine. One lady was really mad because all the kids were sick and puking at school, and they didn’t evacuate the school.”
According to the Arkansas Times, “Bolenbaugh said he has been diagnosed with migraines, dizziness, headaches, blood in his urine and kidney dysfunction, all of which he attributes to his time as a tar sands oil cleanup worker. He added that residents of the area should consider seeking legal representation, and should avoid signing any settlements with ExxonMobil, even if they’re feeling fine now.”
“People have to realize that these chemicals sometimes take up to a year before you’ll even see signs that you are getting sick,” Mr. Bolenbaugh told the Arkansas Times. “What Exxon and Enbridge and all these companies do, they’ll have people sign off, they’ll give them two or $3,000 dollars or less, and then they say: ‘sign this document that clears us from all future lawsuits. Basically you have settled with us.’ The issue with that is, people will have major medical bills in the future, or maybe the kids who breathe these chemicals in, maybe 10 years in the future, they get cancer.”