10 years later, Kalamazoo River spill still colors Enbridge pipeline debate

Dr. Kenneth Kornheiser, DVM, and his four legged first mate, Miss Lucy Honeychurch, paddle down the Kalamazoo River just below Talmadge Creek 10 years after the worst pipeline oil spill in U.S. history. (Bridge photo by Dale G. Young)

Talmadge Creek flows into the Kalamazoo River. In the immediate aftermath of the Line 6B oil spill, the creek ran black with oil that spewed into the Kalamazoo River and traveled nearly 40 miles downstream. (Bridge photo by Dale G. Young)

Oil blackens the Kalamazoo River in the early aftermath of an oil spill from Enbridge’s Line 6B (Photo courtesy of National Wildlife Federation)

Trent Bogi of Dundee landed a Northern Pike on the Kalamazoo River below Talmadge Creek this week, but released it believing it was unsafe to eat 10 years after the worst pipeline oil spill in US history. (Bridge photo by Dale G. Young)

Water Lilies bloom on the Kalamazoo River in July, a decade after the nation’s largest inland oil spill fouled the river with more than 800,00 gallons of crude oil. (Bridge photo by Dale G. Young)

When Beth Wallace arrived at the Kalamazoo River in the immediate aftermath of the Line 6B oil spill, she watched as an oil-covered muskrat attempted to clean itself (Photo courtesy of National Wildlife Federation)

MARSHALL—Dr. Kenneth Kornheiser, a retired Plainwell veterinarian, avid canoeist and longtime river advocate, marks the passing of time since the disastrous Kalamazoo River oil spill by the summers he couldn’t paddle his home river. 

There were the months following the July 25, 2010 spill, when the river ran black after Enbridge’s Line 6B pipeline ruptured in a wetland near Marshall, sending more than 840,000 gallons of crude oil spewing into Talmadge Creek and nearly 40 miles down the Kalamazoo.

Then there were years when parts of the river closed segment-by-segment as cleanup crews dredged and aerated oil that had fused to sediment on the riverbottom.

And finally, the year Enbridge finished dredging Morrow Lake and Kornheiser could fully resume his 21-year-long habit of weekly trips down the Kalamazoo.

“Looking at it now, you’d never know close to a million gallons of oil flowed through here,” Kornheiser said during a recent paddle with his dog, Miss Lucy Honeychurch, along the stretch where Talmadge Creek trickles into the Kalamazoo.

The river teems with life. Lily pads float in the side channels. Turtles bask on the riverbank and anglers compete for the sizable pike that swim along the gravel bottom. 

This month, the Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes & Energy signed off on Enbridge’s final “no further action report” certifying that the Canadian energy company has finished cleaning up areas sullied by oil.

But while the spill response is virtually complete, Line 6B’s legacy lives on in the raging debate it sparked over Enbridge’s Line 5 pipeline in the Straits of Mackinac — one that remains heated today.

“Without that disaster having happened, I don’t think a lot of people even today would know Line 5 existed,” said Liz Kirkwood, executive director of For Love of Water, a nonprofit advocacy group that opposes the pipeline. 

A disaster, then a revelation

The Marshall spill is widely considered a massive pipeline safety and spill response failure. 

Enbridge employees monitoring the pipeline from a control room in Alberta, Canada, took 17 hours to realize a rupture had occurred. By then, 843,000 gallons of heavy crude oil known as diluted bitumen had spilled in what is now recognized as the largest inland oil spill in U.S. history.

Cleanup crews ultimately recovered more than a million gallons, but Enbridge officials contend some of that oil came from other sources.

In the spill’s wake, federal investigators concluded that Enbridge had long known the 41-year-old pipeline was riddled with cracks and corrosion. They also blamed federal regulators at the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration for allowing those defects to fester and approving Enbridge’s lackluster emergency response plan.

Beth Wallace, who grew up in Athens, just south of Battle Creek, was little more than a year into a job at the National Wildlife Federation in Ann Arbor when she heard about the spill. She drove to the scene to see “a river of oil” and a muskrat desperately trying to clean itself.

As she watched the disaster unfold, Wallace wondered: Where else do the company’s pipelines run through Michigan? 

The question led her to Line 5, a 67-year-old Enbridge petroleum pipeline that lies exposed at the bottom of the Straits of Mackinac. Wallace probed local, state and federal authorities for details on its condition, when it was last inspected, what type of steel was used in its construction. 

“None of that was answered,” she said. “I’m convinced that federal regulators didn’t even really have this pipeline on their radar.” 

So in October 2012, Wallace co-authored “Sunken Hazard,” a report detailing how little was publicly known about the pipeline. The report sparked a political firestorm that rages to this day, as Michiganders became aware of the pipeline and concerned about potential devastation in the Straits should it fail. 

Bill Rustem, a former top advisor to Gov. Rick Snyder, remembers it as a wake-up call within state government. 

“Everybody was sort of shocked,” to learn about Line 5’s existence at the bottom of the Straits, Rustem said. In a long career that included advising former Gov. William Milliken on environmental issues, “I don’t think I ever knew it was there.”

Before Line 6B broke, pipelines had played only a minor role in conversations about Michigan’s environment and Great Lakes, said Ken Sikkema, a senior policy fellow at Public Sector Consultants who spent 20 years in the state legislature, including a stint as chair of the Senate Natural Resources Committee. 

“Politics responds to the crisis of the moment,” he said, “and if you don’t have a crisis that becomes a major story like Kalamazoo, issues just fall by the wayside.”

But the Kalamazoo spill and the Sunken Hazards report quickly sparked new interest. By July 2013, nearly 500 people showed up in St. Ignace to protest a pipeline that only months earlier had operated in obscurity. 

In 2014, Snyder formed a state task force to learn more about Michigan’s petroleum pipelines. The group issued a series of recommendations, including an independent analysis of alternatives to Line 5, and greater state oversight of the existing pipeline.

Calls for a shutdown grew louder in the ensuing years amid revelations about gaps in the Line 5’s protective coating and a 2018 tugboat anchor strike that dented the pipeline and sliced nearby power cables, spilling 800 gallons of mineral oil into the Straits. Concern about Line 5 transcended political divides

“You don’t have to be an environmental activist to be queasy about an oil pipeline built in the early 50s lying on the floor of the Straits,” said Sikkema, a Republican. 

By 2018, the end of Snyder’s second term, Line 5’s safety had become a key election issue. Gov. Gretchen Whitmer and Attorney General Dana Nessel both ran successful campaigns featuring promises to shut the pipeline down.

But some worried that a shutdown would bring its own problems, including uncertainty for Upper Peninsula residents who rely upon propane from Line 5 to heat their homes. In the waning weeks of his administration, Snyder and the Republican-led legislature enacted a law allowing Enbridge to replace the lakebottom pipeline with a new segment buried in a tunnel beneath the lakebed, which is intended to better protect the pipeline from rupture. 

An evolving debate

The tunnel plan has complicated Whitmer and Nessel’s path to a shutdown, and muddied the political waters over Line 5. Those who oppose the current pipeline are now fractured into camps: Those who support moving Line 5 into a tunnel, and those who want to see a wholesale closure. 

“It has separated the folks who said ‘hey, a pipeline is fine but we are worried about our water,’ versus those who are part of the movement because they hate petroleum products,” said Sen. Ed McBroom, R-Vulcan, who supports the tunnel project.

Nessel has sued Enbridge in hopes of voiding the tunnel agreement. Meanwhile, Enbridge is awaiting permits that would allow it to start tunnel construction. Company officials said they still intend to begin pumping petroleum through the tunnel in 2024.

In the meantime, they say they are applying lessons learned from the Line 6B spill to make sure Line 5 is safe. 

“It was a terrible day for Enbridge, but it just reshaped our company,” said Bryan Stiemsma, Enbridge’s technical manager in Marshall.

Company protocol now enables staff to shut off a pipeline quicker when safety concerns arise. Any shutdown triggers an in-person inspection before petroleum shipments can resume. The company has amped up its inspection program, hired more emergency response staff, and taken pains to make sure local public officials are aware of Enbridge pipelines running through their community.

Enbridge officials tout the new pipeline safety practices as the best in the industry. But the company’s opponents say that’s not enough to ease their concerns about Line 5. 

“It took them hours and hours to respond,” to the Kalamazoo River spill, said Jamie Stuck, chairperson of the Nottawaseppi Huron Band of the Potawatomi in southwest Michigan. “So it’s not promising to me.”

Enbridge opponents point to the company’s recent discovery of a damaged anchor support and worn pipeline coating as evidence that safety practices remain insufficient. 

Those recent discoveries have also sparked a power struggle between state officials and Enbridge. The company contends that only federal regulators, not the state, have authority to oversee pipeline safety — an argument Ingham County Circuit Court Judge James Jamo rejected when he granted Nessel’s request to shut down the pipeline pending an investigation into the damage. 

Meanwhile, Enbridge last week refused Michigan Department of Natural Resources Director Dan Eichinger’s request that the company sign a pledge to pay for any “damages or losses” caused by Line 5’s operation in the Straits. Enbridge contends it has already made such a commitment, rendering a new agreement unnecessary.

The rebuff prompted harsh words from Whitmer. 

“My parents taught me: ‘You break it, you pay for it,’” Whitmer said in a statement. “It seems that’s the bare minimum Enbridge Inc. owes every Michigander so long as the company continues to pump crude oil through the Straits of Mackinac.”

Along the Kalamazoo River, Cheryl Vosburg is watching the Line 5 debate grow more feverish by the day, while worrying that the Line 6B disaster may be fading from public memory.

Vosburg has dedicated her career to cleaning up the Kalamazoo, formerly as the environmental programs coordinator for the city of Marshall and now as director of the Kalamazoo River Watershed Council. In the decade since the spill, her heartbreak has given way to ambivalence. 

She is satisfied with the cleanup and simultaneously worried about lingering environmental damage. She believes Line 5 poses a threat, but worries legal battles over the tunnel plan may only prolong the current line’s operation on the lakebottom. 

And she chafes when she hears Enbridge officials and others claim the Kalamazoo River is healthier now than before the spill.

“What message are you trying to send?” she said of those claims. “Every community should have an oil spill?”

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middle of the mit
Fri, 07/24/2020 - 5:58pm

Line 6B has some people thinking about Line 5? Why not what has happened with Line 5 having people worried about what happens to the rest of Line 5?



[[[[However, there have been numerous spills elsewhere in Michigan from Enbridge pipelines, including a major Line 5 spill at Crystal Falls in 1999, as well as the 2010 Kalamazoo River oil spill on Line 6.]]]]

Then there is the company they tasked for digging this tunnel.


[[[But just last year, Jay Dee was one of three plaintiffs sued in Macomb circuit court for negligence in connection with the infamous Fraser sinkhole collapse in 2016.

The complaint was filed last April and remains open. The Macomb County drainage district is seeking $70 million dollars plus costs and attorney fees to recover some of the costs of the Dec. 24, 2016. incident.

The sinkhole opened when a sewer line collapsed between Hayes and Utica near 15 Mile Road. The incident closed a portion of 15 Mile for nearly a year, temporarily displaced more than 20 families, and led to two homes being demolished.

Additionally, in 1999, Jay Dee was part of a joint venture contracted by the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department (DWSD) to build a 1.23-mile deep-level rock tunnel which would have extended a sewer “outfall” system from the department’s treatment plant and under the Detroit River.

This project called Detroit River Outfall-2, or DRO-2, was never completed. All work came to a halt once the tunnel flooded with groundwater “to a level of impossible recovery” in April 2003. The company’s contract with the department (PC-709) was subsequently terminated.

A later attempt to proceed with a modified version of the failed project under a different contractor and plug a portion of the flooded tunnel was also ultimately abandoned.]]]

Does this sound like a company that has the best interest of the State or the Environment in mind?

Especially since they won't even back up their own work or guarantees about their pipeline by saying they will take responsibility for a spill caused by their product.

If they can tell us it is safe, they can insure it and guarantee it with their freespeech in the form of money to pay for something if it fails. We have to do it! Why do corporations get to blame government and then shirk responsibility?

I am tired of it!

Sun, 07/26/2020 - 11:23am

Did not know about this company Jay Dee - thank you. Amazing how incompetent a company can be and still be in business and doing the same kind of stupid stuff - over and over. Of course, Enbridge wants to do business with them: they're cheap and will do whatever you want whether it's a good idea or not. Two great companies - ready and willing to stick us taxpayers with the bill for incompetent stupidity.

leonard page
Fri, 07/24/2020 - 10:21pm

enbridge says the tunnel would be safer since line 5 would be in an enclosed space out of he water of the Straits. What Enbridge fails to mention is that 20% of the time, or every 5th day, line 5 will be pumping 23 million gallons of volatile natural gas liquids - mostly propane and butane. if there is a leak during an ngl pump, the heavier than air gas would fill the lower level of the 20 foot wide tunnel first. the tunnel would have electrical lines for lights and blowers. fill this almost 5 mile tube with explosive gas and you will have the world's largest pipe bomb connecting mackinaw city and st. ignace. this is not safe.

Mon, 07/27/2020 - 6:07pm

Maybe yes, maybe no. In the meantime, shut down line 5 now.

Alex Sagady
Sat, 07/25/2020 - 8:25pm

>>>>By then, 843,000 gallons of heavy crude oil known as diluted bitumen had spilled in what is now recognized as the largest inland oil spill in U.S. history.

NOPE. The largest inland oil spill in U.S. history was considerably larger and occurred at Grand Rapids, MN by an Enbridge pipeline predescessor, Lakehead Pipeline Co. in 1991:

>>>>>>>But some worried that a shutdown would bring its own problems, including uncertainty for Upper Peninsula residents who rely upon propane from Line 5 to heat their homes.

You're forgetting about far, far more people in the Lower Peninsula who rely on propane produced in Canada from deliveries on Line 5 to a Sarnia fractionator that are shipped back to Michigan, as well as all of the fuels produced in Michigan and Ohio from Line 5 deliveries of crude oil an to off-ramp pipeline in Marysville that go to Detroit and Toledo refineries.

>>>>>> a law allowing Enbridge to replace the lakebottom pipeline with a new segment buried in a tunnel beneath the lakebed, which is intended to better protect the pipeline from rupture.

Erroneous engineering terminology here.....there is no "new segment buried in a tunnel beneath the lakebed......" Enbridge plans to bore the tunnel under the Straits, not bury it. As a journalist, you should be aware of the difference.

>>>>>>"Nessel has sued Enbridge in hopes of voiding the tunnel agreement"
That never happened. There is no lawsuit with AG Nessel as Plaintiff seeking
that relief. This is a completely fabricated, false claim in the article.

>>>>>>"The company contends that only federal regulators, not the state, have authority to oversee pipeline safety — an argument Ingham County Circuit Court Judge James Jamo rejected when he granted Nessel’s request to shut down the pipeline pending an investigation into the damage. "

Enbridge didn't contest Judge Jamo's TRO (temporary restraining order), and Judge Jamo has NOT ruled on AG Nessel's request for a preliminary injunction, which Enbridge is contesting.....so absolutely nothing about Judge Jamo's TRO is dispositive of Nessel's preliminary injunction motion that Judge Jamo has yet to consider.

A Yooper
Mon, 07/27/2020 - 9:29am

“Looking at it now, you’d never know close to a million gallons of oil flowed through here,” is a joke. Paddling on the surface shows nothing. Go ashore, walk 10 feet, grab your shovel and dig . There is still oil there!!!

Shut Down Line 5
Mon, 07/27/2020 - 6:05pm

As far as I'm concerned, Enbridge should pay the state of Michigan a billion extra dollars just for the hassle. Most of us don't have ten years of our lives to waste waiting for a clean up. Enbridge should also be banned from any future business in our state.

Elliot Mitchell
Wed, 07/29/2020 - 8:47am

We are currently in a monumental health crisis that is wrecking havoc on our economy leaving so much uncertainty and stress. The last thing we need to think about or have to address is another major environmental disaster. Line 5 must be shutdown.