The Kalamazoo River ‘mess’ is a lot more than that


If the BP blowout in the Gulf of Mexico is causing us to reconsider deep-sea drilling, then last week’s oil disaster in Michigan should give us pause about constructing new oil pipelines. And taken together, the spills spotlight what’s wrong with our nation’s energy direction.

Patrick D. Daniel, chief executive of Enbridge Inc., apologized last week for “the mess we made.” He was referring to the pipeline rupture that dumped about a million gallons of crude oil into Michigan’s Kalamazoo River. Though we’re sure that Daniel genuinely regrets that it was his company’s turn to advertise the obvious dangers of continuing our nation’s dependence on oil, this time, sorry’s not good enough.

The immediate consequences of this particular “mess” are bad enough. Thirty miles of the Kalamazoo River were fouled. Birds, fish and other wildlife were killed or oiled. People had to be evacuated from their homes because of high levels of benzene in the air. When the heavy crude passed through the city of Battle Creek, the Kellogg Co. even had to stop making Corn Flakes.


The Kalamazoo empties directly into Lake Michigan. If oil had reached that lake, it would have been, in the words of Michigan Gov. Jennifer Granholm, “a tragedy of historic proportions.” Although the Kalamazoo has come a long way from the days when it was the site for paper mills that dumped chemical waste directly into the river, a stretch of the river is still a Superfund site, and scientists warn that the spilled oil could release pollutants buried in the river’s sediment, unleashing even more toxins.

That’s more than a “mess.” On top of that, this disaster might have been avoided had Enbridge been more responsible. Federal regulators warned Enbridge in January about corrosion in the pipeline, and the company had a history of citations. Needless to say, Daniel’s apology didn’t include taking responsibility for that negligence.

But what we really can’t afford to overlook is that the disaster in Michigan is only the most recent example of a threat that too many Americans don’t even know about. The pipe that burst is part of one of the largest pipeline systems in the world. These are the pipes that bring tar-sands oil from Canada to refineries throughout the industrial cities of the Midwest.

To get tar-sands oil, you first clear-cut ancient boreal forest. Then you expend jaw-dropping quantities of energy and water to grind up the earth and extract tiny bits of crude. The process leaves behind toxic lakes so big they can be seen from space.

Now the Obama administration is considering approval of a pipeline that would dramatically expand tar-sands oil distribution. It’s called the Keystone XL. If you want a perfect example of what’s gone wrong with American energy policy, take a good look at the Keystone XL pipeline. Once built, it would traverse one of the most important aquifers in the country on its way to the Gulf of Mexico. A single spill could threaten the water supply for nearly one-fifth of the wheat, corn and cotton grown and the cattle raised in America.

In light of this, does the company behind the pipeline seem concerned about protecting water and farming communities from this extremely toxic oil? Not exactly. It’s requested waivers that would allow it to skirt standard safety regulations. Why take precautions when you can simply apologize after the fact? We’ve seen this kind of “accidents won’t happen” hubris before, and the Gulf of Mexico is still paying the price.


Instead of allowing foreign oil companies to build more pipelines and operate more drilling rigs in the Midwest, the gulf and elsewhere, we should invest in clean, safe, American energy. And before anyone in Washington decides we should approve the Keystone XL, they should see what one small “mess” did to the Kalamazoo.

It’s ironic that Michigan must pay the price this time. The state is itching to take the lead in clean-energy technology. In less than a year, 16 electric vehicle technology plants have opened there, and they’re projected to create 62,000 new jobs over the next decade. And we could be doing even more.

If not, we’ll all be sorry. As this summer has made clear, oil disasters can happen anywhere, and no part of America will be safe as long as we continue subsidizing Big Oil.

Michael Brune is executive director of the Sierra Club, the nation’s oldest and largest grass-roots environmental organization. Anne Woiwode is director of the Sierra Club’s Michigan chapter.