Toxic rocks and declining health: 3.5 years after Enbridge's tar sands pipeline disaster

| January 14, 2014
Photo: Sonia Grant

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As communities in Ontario and Quebec await the National Energy Board’s (NEB) decision on the Line 9 reversal, new details about the devastating impacts of Enbridge’s now infamous 2010 Kalamazoo River spill in Michigan raise a series of unanswered questions about the health impacts of exposure to spilled diluted bitumen (dilbit), and about Enbridge’s ability to manage potential pipeline incidents.

The Kalamazoo River’s toxic rocks

The Kalamazoo River had been Craig Ritter’s playground for many years. After work, he loved to go fishing in the river and hike along the banks. This all changed when in July 2010, Enbridge’s Line 6B pipeline ruptured, spilling over one million gallons of dilbit from the Alberta tar sands into Talmadge Creek, a tributary of the Kalamazoo River. Since then, Ritter still makes almost daily river trips, but will never fish there again. Instead, he has been photo-documenting the effects of the spill and ongoing cleanup.

In the spring of 2013, Ritter began finding strange rock formations all along the 60km stretch of the river affected by the spill. The rocks he found, which may be tufa rocks, were porous and appeared to be composed of river sediment. But what really shocked Ritter was what happened when he rubbed two rocks together: "the pieces fell into the river and left a light oil sheen on the water surface," he described.

When the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) didn’t respond to Ritter’s inquiry about the rocks, he joined with other concerned residents to send samples of the formations, river water and a control sample from the oil spill to be tested by an analytical chemistry laboratory with experience in environmental testing.

The results are disturbing, to say the least.

Not only do they show that the rock formations, which line the river bottom, contain small amounts of the spilled oil: the formations and water columns samples also contain compounds identical to those present in the aftermath of the BP Deep Water Horizon spill in the Gulf of Mexico, when a dangerous oil surfactant, Corexit, was mixed with crude oil, to devastating ends.

Robert Naman, the lead chemist on the project, said that the samples he tested from the Kalamazoo River "showed chemical degradation products…that were consistent with surfactant use." These kinds of cyclic double-bonded compounds are known to cause adverse human health effects.

But both Enbridge and the EPA say that no such chemical products were used in the spill cleanup. Graham White, Enbridge spokesperson told me over the phone that Enbridge in fact made a "conscious decision not to use those chemicals." He suggested that the chemicals found by Ritter and his team were present "before a drop of Enbridge material or Enbridge product went into that river."

Dr. Riki Ott, an expert on oil spills with a PhD in toxicology, collaborated with Ritter and other residents on the rock project. Dr. Ott acknowledges that, like many urban waterways, the Kalamazoo River may have been polluted before the spill. However, she adds, "It’s disturbing to think that the levels [of chemicals that suggest surfactant use] were high enough in the water at one time to be embedded into the river rocks."

Dr. Ott offers another way of making sense of the presence of these chemicals in the river. She explains that the products used to dilute tar sands bitumen are industrial solvents that are chemically very similar to surfactants and dispersants.

"In effect, solvents act like an oil delivery system into the body. This makes solvent-oil combinations much more toxic than oil alone, as we learned after the BP disaster. With dilbit, the tar sands are already pre-mixed with the solvents," Ott said in a press release issued by The Great Lakes Dilbit Defenders, an organization founded by Ritter.

Along with others, Ritter and Dr. James Timmons MD, a radiologist who works at Bronson Hospital in Battle Creek, Michigan, are collaborating to conduct more tests on the river rocks to get to the bottom of this mystery. "This is about our health, and the health of future generations. It’s about finally getting some answers," says Ritter.

Health impacts and the fear of the unknown

When the dilbit that spilled out of Line 6B reached the Kalamazoo River, it separated. The bitumen began to sink to the bottom of the river, whereas the diluent (a cocktail of chemical solvents -- the exact recipe is a trade secret) evaporated into the air and dissolved into the water.

Respiration of airborne fumes was likely the most significant pathway of exposure in the weeks after the spill, but air monitoring by Enbridge and the EPA was inconsistent. The Michigan Department of Community Health has yet to release its analysis of the health impacts of air contamination, and its previous reports did not take into account residents’ inhalation of benzene and other chemicals in the diluents. In the meantime, some residents are experiencing new and aggravated medical problems.

Todd Heywood is an LGBTQ activist living with HIV in Lansing, Michigan. In 2010, he spent the first six weeks in the immediate aftermath of the Line 6B spill in Marshall, MI, doing investigative journalism on the pipeline disaster. Heywood revealed that Line 6B had been carrying tar sands crude (not conventional oil, as Enbridge had initially alleged), and that one of the cleanup companies contracted by Enbridge had hired a crew of undocumented workers who were made to deal with dilbit without proper safety equipment.

However, Heywood’s work on the spill came to an abrupt end when, upon a regular check-up with his doctor, it became evident that he had suffered significant immune damage from his exposure to benzene and other airborne chemicals released from the spill. "What we know is that my CD4s and CD8s [key immune cells involved in the body’s ability to fight HIV] were awesome before the event, and have never really properly recovered after," explained Heywood. This decline in his health required him to begin taking new HIV medications.

Upon advice from his doctor and pulmonologist, Heywood returned to Lansing and avoided contact with the river. Reflecting on his experience, Heywood said, "The EPA should have been aware of risks to those with compromised immune systems and issued warnings to that effect. That never happened, nor did local or state health authorities warn anyone with immune issues of such risks."

Unlike Heywood, most residents impacted by the spill didn’t undergo routine medical monitoring. They thus lacked the kinds of historical health records that might help indicate how exposure affected them in the short-term.

Moreover, despite the fact that there is very limited knowledge about the health effects of exposure to oil, let alone dilbit, the U.S. federal health department declined to conduct a long-term health study of the exposed populations in Michigan. In light of these challenges, residents have only anecdotal evidence of how their health has changed since the spill.

Michelle Barlond-Smith, who lived along the Kalamazoo River at the time of the spill, has supported members of her community in navigating the impacts of the disaster and has been monitoring her neighbors’ health ever since. "I am seeing a worsening of symptoms, such as people with COPD [chronic obstructive pulmonary disease] stage 1 who are now at stage 4 and 5, on multiple inhalers and medications. I have seen new skin issues, respiratory issues, headaches, memory loss, dizziness and a multitude of complaints that are worsening," she said.

Barlond-Smith is well aware of the near impossibility of establishing causal links between the spill and these illnesses, especially in the absence of a long-term health study. So while hesitant to make accusations, she remains skeptical: "the deaths of 25 residents that I personally have known since the start of this [the spill] leads me to question official assurances that there are no long-term health problems," she said.

What does any of this have to do with Line 9?

As residents in Ontario and Quebec, our analysis of Line 9 cannot start and stop at the risk of a spill: we must account for the ongoing violence of tar sands extraction and colonial resource development. Our politics, if they are to be effective and transformative, must insist on "no tar sands in anybody’s backyard," and look towards more just alternatives.

Indigenous land defenders and environmental activists have argued that Line 9 should not be reversed, and not only because of the high risk of a spill like the disaster in Michigan. There has been no meaningful consultation with Indigenous communities along the pipeline route, and all five First Nations councils that intervened in the NEB hearings urged that the project be denied. If approved, the Line 9 reversal would be complicit in the slow industrial genocide that is the expansion of the Alberta tar sands, and the ensuing climate chaos.

But nor can we forget the Kalamazoo River spill. Indeed, the story of the spill has been circulating in debates about Line 9 since the project was proposed. On the one hand, Enbridge claims to have learned from its mistakes and improved its safety practices, while many groups have expressed concerns to the contrary. As for residents in Michigan, as Ritter says, "every time I go looking for answers about this spill and how it’s going to affect us long-term, I just wind up with more and more questions."

Do the diluents in dilbit share similar chemical signatures and behaviours to surfactants and dispersants? Or, did Enbridge use chemical product in its cleanup of the spill? Are the emerging medical problems among residents in Michigan linked to their exposure to the spill? Will the river ecosystem ever recover? Communities along the route of Line 9 have a stake in knowing the answers to these questions.

Amidst all of this uncertainty, one thing is for sure: if the NEB approves the Line 9 reversal in early 2014, grassroots resistance against the pipeline will only continue to grow. And perhaps then we might look once again to the Kalamazoo River, but this time, not to foreshadow a grim future of oil spills: instead, we might draw inspiration from people like Barlond-Smith, Heywood, Ritter, and the Michigan Coalition Against Tar Sands, who have been keeping up a strong fight, three and a half years later.

 

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Craig Ritter founded The Great Lakes Dilbit Defenders. Check out the group’s new website for updates on the toxic rocks, the Kalamazoo River cleanup, and the Line 6B replacement/expansion.

Sonia Grant is a graduate student and an environmental justice organizer based in Toronto. She spent the summer of 2013 in Michigan researching the Kalamazoo River spill.

Photo provided by Sonia Grant.

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