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

By Kari Lydersen and David A. Fahrenthold
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, August 6, 2010; A03

MARSHALL, MICH. -- In the Summer of the Spill, history is already repeating itself, this time in Michigan.

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. The villain is different: a broken pipeline, not a blown-out well. The oily birds are Canada geese, not pelicans.

But other plot points are eerily similar: A large company with safety violations. Regulators who didn't act fast enough. Claims centers. Containment boom. Broken equipment that everybody's waiting to examine.

And now, questions about how much of the oil is gone and how much is just unaccounted for.

"The pattern that we see here is a pattern of inadequate oversight and supervision [in government] and an industry that appears to cut corners," said the National Wildlife Federation's Tim Warman, who helped write a report documenting hundreds of accidents in the oil and gas industry in the past decade.

It went to the printer last month, two days before the Michigan spill began.

"The pattern suggests that we're going to see more of them," Warman said.

The Michigan spill appears to have begun late July 25 when something broke in a 30-inch pipeline that carries oil from Canada to Midwestern refineries.

The leak wasn't noticed until 11:45 the next morning. By then, an estimated 19,500 barrels (819,000 gallons) had escaped. That isn't much compared with the gulf spill, in which 4.9 million barrels (205.8 million gallons) escaped, according to an analysis this week. But it was enough to turn tiny Talmadge Creek into a stream of oil and make a section of the larger Kalamazoo River run black.

An Environmental Protection Agency official on the scene said it was the most destructive oil spill ever in the Midwest.

"I don't know if we'll feel safe ever again. That's the mind-set this gives you," David Orban, who lives on the creek, said at a public hearing Monday. Nearby homes were evacuated, and residents were left worrying about tainted air and drinking water.

As in the gulf, scrutiny has fallen on an obscure federal agency charged with preventing this kind of calamity. There, it was the Minerals Management Service. Here, it is the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration, an arm of the Transportation Department.

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.

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