Page 2 of 2   <      

Oil spill in Michigan's Kalamazoo River has echoes of Gulf of Mexico disaster

An oil spill in the Kalamazoo River has set off a small-scale reenactment of the Gulf of Mexico's drama in farm country 100 miles west of Detroit.

In January, that agency's regulators had sent a "warning letter" to Enbridge Inc. about the pipeline, Line 6B. The agency says the pipeline, where 250 "anomalies" had been found the previous June, lacked some working monitors intended to detect internal corrosion.

In February, the agency said, it met with Enbridge's leaders to complain about larger safety problems. On July 15, Enbridge asked for an extension on its deadline to repair Line 6B. Before the agency could reply, the pipe apparently broke. It's still unclear what, precisely, caused the problem; the faulty pipe has not been removed from the scene.

This week, the agency defended itself, saying it only has the power to shut down a pipeline with "immediate integrity issues." Enbridge's pipeline didn't qualify, the agency said in a written statement, because the company appeared to be working to fix the problems.

"Under the Obama Administration, we have worked aggressively to restore oversight and ensure that safety is the number one priority," said a statement from John Porcari, deputy secretary of transportation. "That's why we repeatedly pushed Enbridge to address the safety and performance of its entire Lakehead Pipeline system." That system is the one that includes Line 6B.

In an interview Thursday, Enbridge Executive Vice President Stephen J. Wuori rejected the idea that this spill should merit the same kind of reaction as the BP spill, which sparked a federal moratorium on deep-water drilling and tougher scrutiny from regulators.

"I don't think the answer is more government oversight or the need for new regulations," Wuori said. "We will discover exactly what caused this and put that into [lessons] we can apply."

After the leak was discovered, it followed an arc familiar from the gulf spill, though significantly sped up because the gulf's lessons were fresh. In the early days of the spill, Michigan Gov. Jennifer M. Granholm (D) blasted the federal government and Enbridge for their "inadequate" response.

But since then, 99,000 feet of boom have been laid and millions of gallons of an oil-and-water mixture have been vacuumed up. In all, an EPA official said, the cleanup could cost more than $100 million, paid by Enbridge.

Now, authorities say, the majority of the oil in the water has been cleaned up. "We got 'er, but we still have to be constantly on guard," said Mark Durno, the EPA's incident commander here.

For the area's residents, as for those near the gulf, the disappearance of floating oil is not the signal that normal has returned. Cindy Hayes, who lives along the river, said she had felt empathy for the gulf spill victims but never imagined something similar could happen to her, 1,100 miles away.

After the spill, family members began vomiting from the oily fumes and had to flee to a hotel. Now they're back, and the spill is making them nauseated again.

"We had a nice community, a great place to raise a family, to go fishing by the bridge," said Hayes, 50. "That's all over for a long time now."

Freelance writer Lydersen reported from Michigan. Staff writer Fahrenthold reported from Washington.

<       2

© 2010 The Washington Post Company