Monday, October 17, 2011


The oil spill in Michigan’s Kalamazoo River came from pipes transporting tar sands oil – the type of oil to be piped from Canada to Texas if the TransCanada Keystone XL deal is completed.

One cause for concern among opponents of the Keystone XL pipeline is its potential to leak into and damage the Ogallala Aquifer, which supplies 78 per cent of the public water supply in Nebraska and one-third of all the water used for irrigation in the US.


In July 2010, nearly four million litres of toxic tar sands crude oil gushed into the [Kalamazoo] river following the rupture of the Lakehead Pipeline 6B belonging to Enbridge Energy Partners, a Canadian oil and gas transportation company.


The Lakehead Pipeline 6B that burst was built in 1969 to transport regular oil, not tar sands crude - which is as thick as peanut butter and must be injected with chemicals in order to enable transportation.


"Even a small, undetected leak from an underground rupture of the pipeline in the Nebraska Sandhills could pollute almost five billion gallons of groundwater with benzene at concentrations exceeding safe drinking water levels."


Meanwhile, Robert Whitesides of the Watershed Council in Kalamazoo recently remarked to Al Jazeera: "TransCanada claims they can detect and shut down a leak in six minutes, but the Michigan pipeline rupture gushed tar sands oil for 12 hours before it was detected."


"Tar sands crude oil is 10 times more toxic than regular crude oil," [toxicologist Dr. Riki] Ott explained to Al Jazeera. "So of course, we're seeing the same health problems in those exposed to the chemicals in the oil in Michigan as we are seeing in those exposed to BP's oil in the Gulf of Mexico."


A survey conducted by the Michigan Department of Community Health three weeks after the Kalamazoo incident found that 60 per cent of nearby residents were experiencing headaches, vomiting, respiratory troubles and other health problems due to the spill.

Dahr Jamail

The “other health problems” include memory loss and seizures. The spill also accounted for hundreds of thousands of dollars of lost crops.

Todd Heywood, a senior reporter who has been covering the Kalamazoo spill for the Michigan Messenger, remarked to Al Jazeera:

"Enbridge did not give the EPA and other emergency responders the proper MSDS [Material Safety Data Sheets] to respond to until about a week after the spill. There should have been an immediate mandatory evacuation order, but that didn't happen because Enbridge didn't give them the proper information."


Instead of acting independently, [Robert Whitesides, a board member of the Watershed Council] told Al Jazeera, the state "started issuing reports generated by Enbridge".


Beth Wallace, the Community Outreach Regional Coordinator for the NWF, meanwhile took issue with Enbridge's distribution of a waiver for area residents to sign if they desired air monitoring near their home or business, which included a pledge not to sue the company.


According to Ottawa-based advocacy group the Polaris Institute, Enbridge is responsible for 610 spills - involving more than 22 million litres of oil - between 1999 and 2008. This is approximately half the amount of oil spilled during the Exxon Valdez disaster in Alaska in 1989.

And what about the need of the US to become less dependent upon Middle Eastern oil supplies? Wouldn’t the TransCanada deal help?

According to the watchdog group Oil Change International, oil demand in the US has in fact dropped due to the economic crisis, and, for the first time since 1970, domestic oil production is up as a result of shale oil production in North Dakota and Texas. Noting that TransCanada has already secured contracts with companies that are openly planning to export oil - such as Valero, Motiva, and Total - Oil Change International observes that TransCanada's actual intention is to refine the tar sands oil into diesel fuel in order to ship it to the European market, where demand is high.

In a report entitled "Exporting Energy Security: Keystone XL Exposed", the group predicts: "The construction of the Keystone XL will not lessen dependence on foreign oil - rather, it will feed the growing trend of exporting refined products out of the United States, thereby doing nothing to enhance energy security or to stabilize oil prices or gasoline prices at the pump. If completed, it will successfully achieve a long term objective of Canadian tar sands producers - access to export markets beyond the US."


Because the Keystone XL pipeline project involves crossing the US border, it requires a Presidential Permit.

The final say on whether to build the pipeline rests with President Obama. His decision is expected before the end of the year.

It will be interesting to see how he sizes up the situation, and it will undoubtedly be dependent upon whom he sees as more likely to secure his “re-election” – some environmentalists or some oil barons. Of course, they claim now that they have pipe specially manufactured, so the danger of a leak like that in the Kalamazoo River is practically non-existent.

....and hey, do what you will anyway.

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