On a midsummer evening in July of 2010, heavy crude started gushing from a 30-inch pipeline into Talmadge Creek, near Marshall, Michigan. By the next morning, heavy globs of oil soon were coating the Kalamazoo River, into which the Talmadge flows, and the stench of petroleum filled the air.
Enbridge, the Canadian company that owns and operates the ruptured pipeline 6B, made a lot of mistakes in the hours after the first gallons spilled. The disaster didn’t have to be so bad. Records of the official responses showed, for instance, that the company didn’t send someone to the site until the next morning. And that the Enbridge pipeline controllers increased pressure to the line, on a hunch that the funky signals they were getting was from a bubble, and not a spill.
When all was said and done, an estimated 1 million gallons of tar sands crude had leaked into the Kalamazoo River – ranked by the EPA as the largest spill in Midwestern history – with some oil flowing a full 40 miles down the river towards Lake Michigan.
Though the company that owns the pipeline, Enbridge, tried to deny it, the oil was soon revealed to be diluted bitumen (or DilBit), a form of tar sands crude that is thick and abrasive and can only be pumped through pipelines at enormously high pressure. DitBit is also, it turns out, much harder to clean up than regular old dirty crude. And that – the clean up – is where the story gets really complicated.
This week, OnEarth.org (where I’m also a blogger), published an incredible 3-part series about the Enbridge spill, the egregious mishandling of clean up efforts, and Enbridge’s deliberate cover-up of its shoddy, cheap, and reckless work. Written by Ted Genoways, who spent weeks on the ground in Michigan and accumulated over 100 hours of interviews, the piece is the sort of long form, old-fashioned, exhaustive muckraking that you don’t see nearly enough of these days.
It also focuses on a, well, interesting character – a whistleblower named John Bolenbaugh, who claims he was fired from an Enbridge cleanup crew for threatening to expose the ugly truth behind the cleanup efforts.
On Monday, September 6, Jason Buford, a representative from O’Brien’s Response Management (another Houston-based contractor, specializing in crisis management) called a meeting of Bolenbaugh’s crew, just upriver from the former Hallmark site; he said that, if they were going to meet deadline now, they needed to stop wasting time with small oil-clogged areas. He directed Bolenbaugh's crew to go through the woods, thin out oily debris, and mix mud into the remaining oil so that the EPA would clear the site. Dave Hoekstra, one of Bolenbaugh’s supervisors, confirmed under oath last October that Buford “told us to spread oily debris in the woods out thinner so it would look less like there was thick oil there.” Buford said they should clean up larger pockets of oil, Hoekstra recalled, but if they encountered smaller tar balls caked with twigs or leaves he wanted them “just to hit it with a rake and spread it out.” (Asked in depositions about this practice, Hoekstra said, “That’s not the proper way to clean it up.”)
Bolenbaugh complained to John Duncan, another supervisor for SET Environmental, asking if he was really compelled to follow the instructions of an O’Brien’s foreman. That night, Duncan called a meeting of his workers. “His exact words,” Bolenbaugh told me, “were: 'If your conscience bothers you, you do not have to cover up oil.'” (Hoekstra confirmed this in depositions, but Enbridge has since issued a statement, insisting that O’Brien’s was not acting on instructions from above, as “we would never instruct a contractor to hide oil.”) Bolenbaugh says this was the moment he realized he needed to document what was going on. “I knew right then that SET was doing whatever they were told to do,” he recalled in a deposition. “If you felt wrong about it, don't do it, but if you could handle covering up oil and it didn't bother you, go for it.”
Days later, Duncan directly instructed Bolenbaugh and a co-worker named J. T. to spread cut grass over thick oil. Bolenbaugh got out his BlackBerry and started taking pictures. It was 4:08 p.m., according to the time-stamped photos – the end of a long day – and Bolenbaugh says that Duncan was choosing to cover the oil rather than refresh supplies of oil-absorbing foam squares. Duncan later insisted to SET officials that he was simply trying to improvise with what he had at hand, that the grass was “a temporary fix,” and he intended to return to the site to complete the cleanup the following morning.
But the next morning, when the crew did not return to the site, Bolenbaugh got angry – and he started running his mouth. He threatened to go to the press – to tell them what Jason Buford had instructed them to do, what Duncan had done the night before. He said he had SET supervisors on video telling him to level dirt over oil that was seeping out of an island, rather than digging out the area as they should. Line 6A, the companion pipe to 6B, had ruptured in Romeoville, Illinois, just days before – spilling roughly 378,000 gallons of oil into the Chicago suburb, barely 40 miles from where SET is based. How would people there feel about SET covering up for Enbridge?
Somebody called SET Supervisor Andy Saylor, who texted Bolenbaugh directly to say that he was on his way from Chicago to address the situation. “I thought he was going to fire John Duncan for telling us to do an illegal activity,” Bolenbaugh later remembered during depositions, but when Saylor arrived, “he yelled at me saying, 'You cannot go to the press.'”
Bolenbaugh remembers going flush in the face. He countered that he had checked company policy, and he was permitted to shoot photographs and video. Bolenbaugh says Saylor pointed a finger at him.
“One more word,” Saylor said, “and you are fired.”
If you need any more incentive to read the piece, maybe you’ll find it in one of Bolenbaugh’s video exposes. Ever since he was fired, Bolenbaugh has set out almost daily to impacted sites, and has filmed evidence of the shoddy clean-up efforts.
As startling as that footage of oil gushing up from an allegedly cleaned up streambed is the fact that this video has been viewed only 100 times (at the time of publishing). Clearly, Enbridge’s cover-up efforts are working, at least until more people hear Bolenbaugh’s story.