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The Horrifying Effects of a Canadian Tar Sands Oil Spill

By James Burgess | Mon, 20 August 2012 00:00 | 9

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

Leave a comment

  • Ross Ephgrave on August 21 2012 said:
    We are still many years away from passing the torch fully to renewable energy, so to some level this form of energy is required. The oil sands are here to stay whether we like it or not. Perform a risk assessment and determine appropriate mitigations to deal with hazards and be prepared.

    Shutting down the oil sands results in hundreds of thousands of lost jobs in North America. Not all of them are in Canada. It results in a loss of independence in Canada - USA as conventional oil dwindles. It is better to accept it but regulate it and not let production get out of control. Leverage it with development of renewable sources. It is how we have to transition to survive, until one day renewable energy is prevalent and oil production is relegated to secondary applications (manufacturing, home heating).
  • jimpricehunter on August 21 2012 said:
    Well, thank you Trans Canada for the prediction at the end of this article! Yes, thanks a lot. But the spills get cleaned up (maybe). How about the Benzene compounds (know carcinogens) that evaporate out into the atmosphere and perform unknown damage to who knows what?
  • Max Nigh on August 21 2012 said:
    It seems obvious that if "one " oil spill occurs in 10 years( Keystone estimate), it will still sink to the bottom of any stream, lake or river, and allow the thinner to evaporate, and leave a gum like mess that would be a monumental cleanup problem.
    What are these people smoking?
  • Mel Tisdale on August 22 2012 said:
    "As Bolenbaugh tells it, he and other cleanup workers were told to bury oil..."

    Anyone wanting a short description of the fossil fuel industry's ethics, that quote should do perfectly.
  • ralph on August 27 2012 said:
    We have the means to stop the destruction caused by the harvesting of TAR sands. We chose not to due to the money from oil companies. America could be off the oil imports but they chose not to due to money from the oil companies. America could finally admit that global warming is a major crisis for the world and take the lead in doing something about it but the money from the oil companies is preventing us from doing so. Oil money is the main reason for the invasion of Iraq for non-existent WMDs and it 14 billion barrels of known Iraq oil reserves.

    This oil and coal money is destroying our environment our political system or young men who fight the wars for resources and our countries financial future. Either the US takes the lead to become energy efficient and independent clean energy producer or we will become a second class empire just like Russia did.

    Global warming is real or 98% of the world climatologists are lying or are stupid or just plain wrong. Global warming is real or all of the recognized national or international scientific organizations are all wrong. The disinformation campaign from the carbon industry is enormous with subsidized pseudoscience books disinformation wed sites subsidized by the carbon industry and misleading information from propaganda think tanks like the Heritage Foundation that accepts its funding from the carbon industry. It is ongoing due to the estimated 27 Trillion dollars of reserves they own.

    These Oil and coal guys are committing crimes against humanity expecting to be dead long before the full impacts of their actions are felt worldwide.
  • Blogifer on October 02 2012 said:
    Oil has been naturally leaking into rivers and oceans for billions of years. The first oil discovery in North America was an oil spring where the oil was bubbling up naturally from the ground. This was discovered in 1627 near Cuba, New York, sixteen miles from Olean. Bacteria eat the oil so the effects are short lived.
  • AChip on October 20 2012 said:
    If we can "expect 1 big spill in the next 10 years", and the Keystone pipeline has already had 14 spills since it's opening in 2010... WHY are we trying to double the number of pipes carrying this toxic sludge over our watersheds? The Keystone XL expansion is entirely unnecessary and imprudent. #nokxl
  • TFill on March 02 2013 said:
    We will get less than 5000 temporary jobs. The final product is to be EXPORTED. It is not for OUR BENEFIT. It will only ruin our land and water, and cause more climate change.
  • james kramer on March 26 2014 said:
    "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." and this ok, why???

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