Today marks the two-year anniversary of a massive oil spill into the Kalamazoo River in Marshall, Michigan…a spill whose effects are still being felt in many ways today.  By the time the spill was stopped in the late summer of 2010, some 1.2 million gallons of corrosive tar sands oil had been released into the Kalamazoo River watershed, making it the largest inland spill in US history.  Cleanup is still ongoing – two full years later – and the costs of the cleanup are nearly $800 million, making it the costliest onshore spill in US history as well.

These are scary facts on their own, but coupled with a recent report from the National Wildlife Foundation that outlines the shocking history of spills by Enbridge pipelines, they are downright terrifying. The report outlines over 800 pipeline spills during the period of 1999 to 2010, and brings to light a terrible record of safety for a company hoping to expand its pipelines all over North America.

The Kalamazoo spill and NWF’s new report reinforce many lessons about the dangers of extreme fossil fuels such as tar sands oil, but perhaps a few lessons in particular stick out.

First, what has become abundantly clear especially in the aftermath of the Kalamazoo spill is that tar sands oil (or “bitumen” in industry-speak) ain’t your normal garden variety oil. 

This isn’t the Texas tea flying out of the air from oil derricks…as dirty as even that conventional oil is. Tar sands oil is oil on dirty steroids. Not only is the extraction of tar sands causing indescribable destruction of the land, water and communities in Alberta and elsewhere, nor is it only that tar sands oil cause many more greenhouse gas emissions than standard oil, but when the tar sands oil is spilled it causes even greater environmental destruction than other types of conventional oil.

As experts have explained in numerous places (such as here), tar sands oil is different from “regular” oil, and these differences mean dangerous differences in how it is transported through pipelines.  Bitumen is heavier than standard oil and thus is transported at higher pressures in order to push it through the pipes. With this higher pressure comes more oil spilling more quickly than normal when a pipe leaks. And then, because bitumen (aka tar sands oil) is so heavy, once it is out of the pipe and in watersheds, it sinks down into water and is even harder to clean out of waterways and wetlands than conventional oil.

In short, tar sands pipelines are inherently even more dangerous for the surrounding lands and waterways than even the already-dangerous “conventional” oil pipelines.

A second lesson to be learned is that when a pipeline or oil company tells you their pipeline (or oil rig…or tankers…or whatever ever else they are selling) won’t leak, you can rest assured it will.

Tar sands oil in particular is especially corrosive, and the pipes these companies are using to transport it are simply not up to the task.  But what’s more, the NWF report shows us that even with conventional oil, Enbridge isn’t up to the task of transporting oil.  Think about it, in 12 years, this company was responsible for over 800 spills.  That’s nearly one spill every five days.  And this is one of the biggest oil companies around…if they can’t go a week without spilling, why should we think anyone can?

In fact, the NTSB just released a damning report of Enbridge’s safety record in the aftermath of the Kalamazoo spill. This report is as much an indictment as you are ever going to find from a government agency. The amazingly critical quotes are so numerous that it’s almost hard to pick a favorite, but this one seems to capture the sentiment well:

“It’s evident that this accident did not just occur because of corrosion in a pipeline. What this investigation has shown is that this accident was the result of corrosion throughout many vital safety aspects of the Enbridge organization.” Robert Sumwalt, NTSB Board Member

And this company is proposing to build over a dozen new pipelines in the coming years?

And it gets worse – as my colleague Lorne Stockman outlined in May, tar sands oil pipeline companies are exempt from contributing to the Oil Spill Liability Trust Fund, somehow.  So not only is tar sands all that much more dangerous, the companies building tar sands pipeline don’t have to contribute to a fund that is the American public’s only insurance that a spill will be properly cleaned up.

A third important lesson also comes to mind when seeing all of this: we must stay vigilant in the face of these huge industries pushing for more dangerous fossil fuel projects.

We’ve been proud to play a role – with so many others around the country – in keeping the Keystone XL pipeline at bay thus far. And while we’ve won some victories delaying its construction, more attempts have cropped up even in the past few days to force this dangerous pipeline down the throats of Americans. We’ve been winning, overcoming large odds, but the battle is not over.

Dirty energy and pipeline companies spend millions on lobbying and in political contributions every year, polluting our democracy and buying votes for lax regulations and the status quo. And with large profits in their sights, these companies won’t be letting up any time soon.  So neither can we…but the good thing is that people are rising up.

photo courtesy

This week there are going to be scores of events saying “We Stand with Kalamazoo,” marking an anniversary that we wish didn’t exist. Down in Texas, heroes are gearing up to brave this summer’s record-breaking heat and stand in the way of more pipeline expansions as part of the Tar Sands Blockade.  And this coming weekend, communities from all around the country are converging on DC to have their voices heard against natural gas fracking at Stop the Frack Attack.

There are many more examples of brave citizens and activists standing up against the fossil fuel industry, every day.  In the face of these terrifying reports and solemn anniversaries, that can give us some hope as we all work together to break down the barriers to a more sustainable future.

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