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Two Years Later, Kalamazoo River Oil Pipeline Spill Is Nation's Costliest

By JoshMogerman in News on Jul 26, 2012 2:30PM

Two years ago, Chicagoans were gazing nervously eastward as a massive pipeline spill dumped one million gallons of heavy Canadian bitumen, or tar sands oil, into the Kalamazoo River, which empties into Lake Michigan. Public officials openly worried that the oil plume might reach the Great Lakes (Former Mayor Richard M. Daley wondered aloud whether Asian carp or an oil spill would do more damage).

It turned out that those fears were unwarranted, largely because much of the oil ended up sinking and coating a 40-acre swath of the river bottom. At the time, the pipeline mess in Michigan did not get much attention in the media because all eyes were on the even-more-massive BP Deepwater Horizon debacle in the Gulf of Mexico. It turns out both were historic disasters.

Even though this week marks the second anniversary of the Kalamazoo spill, the cleanup is not yet complete. Nonetheless, it stands as the longest and costliest pipeline cleanup in America’s history, with oil sheens still clearly visible on the waterway Wednesday. The cleanup difficulty is largely due to the heavy, sticky and stubborn nature of tar sands oil which mucked riverbanks and sensitive wetlands that have proven difficult to remove. The EPA has overseen the cleanup, which they noted was “writing the book” on how to clean tar sands spills, and admit that the oil will likely never be completely removed from the river.

A federal investigation of the spill released last week paints a damning picture of incompetence and errors from the pipeline’s owner and operator—an impression reinforced by another spill even closer to home in suburban Romeoville soon after the Michigan spill—leading one investigator to describe the pipeline company as “Keystone Kops,”, a slightly veiled reference to the political battle raging over another massive pipeline project that would transport tar sands from Canada to Texas, Keystone XL. The incident has also sparked National Academy of Science hearings this week over whether the specific type of oil that spilled in the Kalamazoo River, diluted bitumen, can be moved safely in pipelines or instead requires added safety protections.

Tar sands oil is particularly reviled by environmentalists due to its increased greenhouse gases and the horizon-to-horizon moonscapes created by the strip mines that extract it in Canada. Here in the greater Chicago area, Will County is riddled with pipelines delivering tar sands to multiple local refineries, including the controversial BP refinery over the state line in Whiting, Ind.

2 years later, some sheen on open river: