While BP engineers and cleanup crews were busy fighting the rising tide of oil blasting from a blown-out well deep in the Gulf of Mexico, another epic oil disaster was occurring in Michigan.
Most U.S. adults know at least a little about the largest offshore spill in U.S. history. But ask them about the 2010 Enbridge oil spill in Michigan — the largest inland spill in U.S. history, and chances are very few will be familiar with it.
And, like BP’s Deepwater Horizon spill, the environmental devastation and other fallout of the Enbridge oil spill is still unfolding five years later.
Enbridge’s “Line 6B” pipeline ruptured on July 25, 2010, near Marshall, Mich., during a planned shutdown. According to National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) investigators, workers at the Enbridge control center in Edmonton, Alberta, Canada thought the alarms that sounded were caused by the shutdown, not an actual breach.
Subsequently, Enbridge kept pumping oil despite a 6-foot breach in its pipeline. The ruptured line released 1,100,000 gallons of highly toxic diluted bitumen oil (often called “dilbit”) from processed Canadian tar sands.
The oil spilled into Tallmadge Creek, which carried it into the Kalamazoo River. The Enbridge oil spill has been one of the costliest and most difficult oil spills to clean up because of the quantity and quality of the oil, which is extremely sticky and doesn’t break down like unrefined oil.
According to NPR’s Elizabeth Shogren, “NTSB investigators determined that the six-foot gash in the pipe was caused by a flaw in the outside lining, which allowed the pipe to crack and corrode. Now, in 2005, Enbridge actually had learned that this section of pipe was cracked and corroding. … That same 2005 internal report pointed to 15,000 defects in the 40-year-old pipeline. And Enbridge decided not to dig up this [Talmadge Creek] area to inspect it.”
Critics of the proposed Keystone Pipeline, which would transect the U.S. heartland hauling the same kind of oil, often point to the Kalamazoo River catastrophe as an example of the horrors that await us should the line ever be approved.
By the time local residents near the Enbridge rupture realized anything was wrong, nearly a whole day had passed. The oil covered about 40 miles of the Kalamazoo River before the pumps stopped and the spill was halted before it reached Lake Michigan.
The spill closed off the Kalamazoo River to boaters and fishermen for two years. Up to 50 homes were temporarily evacuated and several more were told not to use their drinking water. The spill took a heavy toll on birds, fish, turtles, and other wildlife, and the submerged oil continues to pose ecological problems and health risks that scientists are still trying to grasp.
Although there are still many uncertainties about the future, nobody expects the oil to go away completely soon. Fresh water doesn’t contain oil-devouring microbes that are found in salt water, and millions of gallons of the dense, toxic dilbit will remain on the riverbed until it is physically removed by humans.