The Dilbit Disaster: Inside the Biggest Oil Spill You’ve Never Heard Of, Parts 1-3 and Epilogue

Elizabeth McGowan and Lisa Song, The Dilbit Disaster: Inside the Biggest Oil Spill you’ve Never Heard Of, Part 1. Part 2. Part 3. Epilogue: Cleanup, Consequences and Lives Changed in the Dilbit Disaster. InsideClimate News, 26-29 June 2012. “[This project] began with a seven-month investigation into the million-gallon spill of Canadian tar sands oil into the Kalamazoo River in 2010. It broadened into an examination of national pipeline safety issues, and how unprepared the nation is for the impending flood of imports of a more corrosive and more dangerous form of oil.”

Excerpts from stories:

The spill [of Canadian diluted bitumen] happened [on Sunday, 25 July 2010] in Marshall, a community of 7,400 in southwestern Michigan. At least 1 million gallons of oil blackened more than two miles of Talmadge Creek and almost 36 miles of the Kalamazoo River, and oil is still showing up 23 months later [June 2012], as the cleanup continues. About 150 families have been permanently relocated and most of the tainted stretch of river between Marshall and Kalamazoo remained closed to the public until June 21.

The accident was triggered by a six-and-a-half foot tear in 6B, a 30-inch carbon steel pipeline operated by Enbridge Energy Partners, the U.S. branch of Enbridge Inc., Canada’s largest transporter of crude oil. With Enbridge’s costs already totaling more than $765 million, it is the most expensive oil pipeline spill since the U.S. government began keeping records in 1968. An independent federal agency, the National Transportation Safety Board, is investigating the accident, and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has launched criminal and civil probes….

Bitumen is so thick—about the consistency of peanut butter—that it doesn’t flow from a well like the crude oil found in most of the nation’s pipelines. Instead the tarry resin is either steamed or strip-mined from sandy soil. Then it is thinned with large quantities of liquid chemicals so it can be pumped through pipelines. These diluents usually include benzene, a known human carcinogen. At this point it becomes diluted bitumen, or dilbit….

Days of confusion followed the spill, with federal and state officials basing their cleanup decisions on the erroneous assumption that the oil was ordinary crude. It was an assumption that Enbridge did not correct. Federal regulations do not require pipeline operators to disclose the specific type of crude oil their lines carry. The nonprofit Pipeline Safety Trust and other organizations have urged the government to change that policy since Canadian dilbit was first pumped into the United States more than a decade ago….

[Deb Miller] always assumed that the oil that was polluting the river in her back yard was ordinary crude. But in casual conversations away from the microphone that day [the day Miller testified before the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee], people had called it “diluted bitumen,” a term she’d never heard before.

“Hearing the oil being described as a totally different product knocked my feet out from under me,” Miller recalled. “My first reaction was to cry. Then I wondered, ‘What else have they lied to us about?’ To this day, that is why I am so frustrated with EPA and Enbridge. Nobody knocked on my door and told me I was in danger.”