Part of the US’s attempts to secure energy independence involves increasing the imports from friendly neighbours such as Canada. This has led to a large number of new pipelines spreading out across America in preparation for the increase in tars sands deliveries.
With more pipelines comes the risk of more spills, and Canada’s tar sands do not produce conventional crude oil. It is thick, sticky and full of sand and other materials that are used in the extraction techniques.
Little is known about how tar sands crude will behave after a spill, or whether its density and the fact that it contains sand will cause unknown wear on the pipes. Scientists are only just researching this, and still have little idea of what to expect.
In July 2010 an Enbridge pipeline burst in Marshall, Michigan, causing tar sands crude oil to spill out over 40 miles of the Kalamazoo River. It was the first major spill of Canadian heavy oil, and would provide an interesting study on the effects of such a spill on the environment.
NPR.org sent a reporter to the Kalamazoo River two years later to check the site, and speak to a member of the clean-up crew. What he revealed was quite shocking.
In Michigan, a cleanup worker turned whistle-blower named John Bolenbaugh helped answer the question: If there's a spill, will they clean up all the oil?
Two years after the spill, Bolenbaugh takes an NPR reporter on a kind of treasure hunt for oil, crashing through jumbles of brush and chest-high grasses.
On the bank of the Kalamazoo River, Bolenbaugh sets up a video camera, because he videotapes everything he does. And then he hurls himself into the river.
A couple of minutes later, he walks out of the river, holding up a blue latex glove covered with tarry black stuff.
"It's like molasses but even a little thicker," Bolenbaugh says. "And it smells like asphalt, kind of. When it was fresh, it was a horrible, horrible smell, like they just paved your road, but they paved it on all four sides of your house, and you had to stay there for months. It was that bad."
As Bolenbaugh tells it, he and other cleanup workers were told to bury oil, which made him furious. So he started taking photos and videos with his cellphone on the sly.
Bolenbaugh was fired after he went to the Environmental Protection Agency and the media. But he sued the contractor he worked for and got a big settlement. Now he's suing Enbridge, the company that runs the pipeline.
"If you notice in this picture, the oil is still there, but we're raking dirt over the top of it," Bolenbaugh says. "That's what we're ordered to do."
Bolenbaugh credits himself with getting Enbridge to redo cleanups. They dug up a two-mile stretch of creek for a second time, after Bolenbaugh showed reporters that a lot of oil was still under the replanted vegetation.
Enbridge and the EPA dispute Bolenbaugh's interpretation of the role he's played, but they both confirm that it has taken far longer to clean up the oil than expected. Early on, the EPA gave the company a couple of months. Two years and $800 million later, the cleanup is still going on. The cost eclipses every other onshore oil cleanup in U.S. history.
Professor Steve Hamilton of Michigan State University explained that the reason the clean-up has taken a lot longer, and cost a lot more than predicted, is that the oil sank to the bottom of the river.
Due to the density of Canadian crude it is much heavier than any other oil. It is diluted in chemicals in order to allow it to flow through the pipes, but once in the open air the chemicals evaporate leaving the heavy hydrocarbon behind. It then just sinks under water. Clean-up crews did not know this and so just performed their normal duties of skimming the oil off the surface and filtering it from the water.
TransCanada claim that their Keystone XL pipeline cannot be compared to Enbridge’s 40 year old pipe, however they are trying to learn as much as possible about the spill in order to be better prepared in the future.
Grady Semmens, a spokesman for TransCanada, said that “the new pipelines we want to build are going to be the newest and safest pipelines ever built in the U.S.. They'll be a lot newer than that line that Enbridge operates. And we're quite confident that any incident even approaching that scale will be very quickly identified and responded to by TransCanada.”
TransCanada predicts that a big spill will only occur once every 10 years along the entire length of its pipe, from Canada to the Gulf of Mexico.
By. James Burgess of Oilprice.com