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The day British Petroleum’s embattled and unpopular CEO resigned due to the Deepwater Horizon oil rig explosion that killed 11 men and spewed 200 million gallons of crude into the ocean, one of the largest inland oil spills and the most expensive oil pipeline spill in U.S. history barely made the news.

A million gallons of diluted bitumen oil – dilbit – from the Alberta tar sands had spilled into the Kalamazoo River from a six and a half-foot rupture in oil pipeline 6B, operated by Canadian company Enridge. The spill began on Sunday, July 25, 2010, ten days after Enridge testified before Congress on pipeline safety while requesting an additional waiver to repair corrosion defects.

Long after much of the BP oil spill has been cleaned up, the Kalamazoo River is still being dredged for spilled oil. A scrappy online news outfit, InsideClimate News, would eventually win the Pulitzer for National Reporting for its 7-month coverage, summed up in the ebook The Dilbit Disaster: Inside the Biggest Oil Spill You’ve Never Heard Of — the source for this article.

Inside Climate News reporters Elizabeth McGowan, Lisa Song and David Hasemyer focused on the spill in Marshall, Michigan, in part, to find answers to questions Song first heard in Nebraska from ranchers and farmers fighting and questioning the Keystone XL pipeline. 

The spill in Michigan showed the reporters that neither the government nor Enbridge knew much about what constitutes dillbit, how to detect a spill or how to clean it up. As of May 2013, total clean up costs had come to $820 million and counting with countless lives and an entire town still recovering. As Nebraska and the U.S. weighs another decision on the Keystone XL pipeline, having those answers would seem to be a requirement.

“Instantaneous” Spill Detection

Ten days before the rupture on pipeline 6B, Enbridge Vice President of U.S. Operations Richard Adams testified before a congressional subcommittee on pipeline safety. “Our response time from our control center can be almost instantaneous, and our large leaks are typically detected by our control center personnel. They can view that there is a change in the operating system, and there are provisions that, if there is uncertainty, they have to shut down within a period of time, and that would include the closing of automatic valves.”

That’s not how it happened in Marshall. Pipeline 6B is a 293-mile segment of the 1,900-mile Lakehead system that transports Canadian oil and dilbit to refineries in the Great Lakes region. Fifteen hundred miles from Michigan, in a control center in Edmonton, Alberta, two operators sitting in a cubicle were monitoring 6B as well as nine other pipelines. When 6B was taken offline for a routine shutdown, a high priority alarm sounded just before 6 p.m. indicating that pressure in Marshall was near zero. Alarms continued to sound, indicating that the volume of oil entering and exiting the pipeline wasn’t equal.

Operators assumed that a large bubble of air had formed between batches of crude, as can commonly happen. According to National Transportation Safety Board documents, the two operators did not mention the six alarms on 6B to the shift that replaced them at 8 p.m.

As Sunday night progressed into Monday morning, controllers pumped dilbit into 6B at pressure comparable to that of a firehose. Alarms continued to sound. Controllers continued to assume it wasn’t a leak.

In Marshall, residents were calling 911, one with a report of a strong petroleum odor that was asphyxiating. At 9:49 a.m., an Enbridge electrician inspected the pump station and smelled no unusual odor or leaks. He was three quarters of a mile away from the rupture.

An employee for a Michigan utility company called Enbridge’s emergency number at 11:17 a.m. He was looking at oil gushing into Talmadge Creek. Half an hour later, an Enbridge employee confirmed the spill.

Seventeen hours after the first alarm sounded in the control room in Canada, the spill was finally detected.

An InsideClimate News review of federal data reveals that in the last decade only 5 percent of oil spills were detected by remote sensors, with the general public reporting 22 percent and pipeline employees another 62 percent.

A Bureaucracy Dealing with Outdated Rules and Regulations

Another hour passed before Enbridge attempted to notify the National Response Center in Washington, D.C. Incredibly, the line was busy. The spill was officially reported at 1:33 p.m. at an estimated 819,000 gallons.

Enbridge did not volunteer to tell the NRC that the pipeline was carrying dilbit, nor did federal regulations require them to disclose that fact. It took more than a week for federal and local officials attempting to clean up the spill to discover that they were dealing with dilbit.  Since 1970 the EPA has cleaned up almost 8,400 light crude oil spills, but this was the first major spill of dilbit in U.S. waters, and the responders had to learn on-the-job how to clean it.

Inside Climate News included “A Dilbit Primer” in the endnotes of their e-book. When it is mined out of the ground, tar sands oil is the consistency of peanut butter because it is a mixture of sand, water and oily bitumen. It is too thick to flow through pipelines and must first be mixed with chemicals to dilute it, becoming diluted bitumen. The chemical mix is considered proprietary information and companies are not required to disclose it — even in the event of a spill. Among that toxic mix, many companies use benzene, which is a known human carcinogen. 

Interstate pipelines are largely self-regulated in the U.S. Prior to the Marshall spill, Enridge had identified 325 corrosion defects on pipeline 6B that it had avoided addressing with a legal option exercised by reducing pumping pressure. The actual defect that caused the spill had been detected three times. The same day it was testifying before Congress on pipeline safety, Enridge had filed for another two and a half year extension on 6B repairs.

At first, the dilbit floated on the water like conventional crude. But soon, it began to separate. The diluents evaporated into the air, sickening residents who breathed it, or dissolved into the water. The evaporation rate took nine days. The bitumen sank to the bottom, where it remains mobile, creating a difficult clean-up problem that goes on to this day. When you can’t see the oil, you don’t know where it is. 

The Dilbit Disaster is dense with facts. Available as an Amazon Kindle e-book, it has links to websites with source material. A copy of the book can be purchased at the website and the original articles are posted on the website for free.

Dilbit Domain

What the lawsuit over LB 1161 may mean for Keystone XL

Thompson v. Heineman, the lawsuit over Nebraska’s pipeline siting law, LB 1161, is not intended to stop the Keystone XL pipeline from being constructed though it seems certain to delay it a while longer.

The lawsuit is a constitutional challenge, brought by three landowners, to determine if the Nebraska legislature violated the state constitution in giving authority to evaluate pipeline routes to the Department of Environmental Quality and authority to approve pipelines, and thus the right of eminent domain, solely to the governor, without providing any judicial review of his or her decision.

Brian Jorde and Dave Domina of the Domina Law firm are representing Randy Thompson, Susan Luebbe and Susan Dunavan in a one hour trial on September 27 against the state of Nebraska. Attorney General Jon Bruning’s office has tried and  failed twice to get the lawsuit dismissed by Judge Stephanie Stacey in Lancaster District Court.

When asked to name the most effective tool he had to convince the judge that LB 1161 was unconstitutional, Jorde replied, “Frankly, it’s just the law. It’s the constitution and the existing case law in Nebraska on the delegation of authority when it comes to eminent domain rights. That’s really our strongest argument.”

Jorde’s petition explains, “Only the Legislature has authority to delegate the power of eminent domain to individuals; it cannot lawfully assign this delegation responsibility or empowerment authority to the Governor or any other department of Nebraska state government.” He cites 1960 case law, Lincoln Dairy Co. v. Finigan, as precedent.

The Nebraska constitution specifically gives authority over common carriers such as pipelines to the Public Service Commission. LB 1161 transferred this responsibility to the Department of Environmental Quality.

The lawsuit is not a critique of the evaluation done by the DEQ. “We don’t need to challenge that the DEQ process was bad or good. We’re just challenging that it was unconstitutional — that it shouldn’t even have occurred,” he said.

In addition to hoping to win the lawsuit, Jorde wants to see the legislature revisit the entire issue of pipelines in Nebraska.

“The biggest issue of all, of what I would like to get across, is the fact that through this whole legal process of the special session and then the regular session, the legislature had the opportunity to couple with the right of eminent domain for major oil pipelines, a renewal fee, or a periodic payment fee or a royalty to be paid either to the state and/or to the landowners that are giving up their land for this project and they didn’t do that. They gave eminent domain away for free. I want to shame the legislature into rethinking this and passing a law in the next session that could be effective before this pipeline is constructed,” he said.

And for the Attorney General, Jorde has an equally strong criticism. “You would think the Attorney General, rather than spending taxpayer money fighting us, would have taken the opportunity to negotiate for our state and its citizens.”

Jorde expects a decision from Judge Stacey in four to six months.

Behind DilBit Disaster

And the Pulitizer for National Reporting goes to… a website

The four contributors were together in the same room for the first time when they met in New York City to receive the 2013 Pulitzer Prize for national reporting for The Dilbit Disaster: Inside the Biggest Oil Spill You’ve Never Heard Of.

Inside Climate News has no office. Pulitzer winners David Hasemyer, reporter, and executive editor Susan White live in San Diego. Winning writers Elizabeth McGowan and Lisa Song live in Washington, D.C. and Boston, respectively. Publisher and co-founder David Sassoon lives in New York City while managing editor and co-founder Stacy Feldman lives in Israel. It is a virtual newsroom.

Founded in 2006 with a staff of two, ICN has grown to seven employees with a yearly budget of less than a million dollars. Major funders are listed on the website and include the Rockefeller Brothers Fund, Ford Foundation and smaller organizations like

They talk on the phone, by necessity, at odd hours. “Stacy is in Israel, so we’re round the clock,” said White. “I’ll talk to her when I’m getting ready to go to sleep and she’s waking up.” While writing The Dilbit Disaster, it wasn’t uncommon for White, Song and McGowan to talk at midnight San Diego time, which is 3 a.m. on the east coast.

The Pulitzer committee made websites eligible to receive the prize in 2008, and for the past three years a website has won in the national reporting category. Previous winners were The Huffington Post and ProPublica. The Pulitizer is a self-nominated prize. Publications submit articles for consideration and pay a $50 entry fee. This year, there were 1,081 entries. Jurors nominate three finalists in each category.

The three reporters, McGowan, Hasemyer and Song, were first-time Pulitzer winners. For editor White, it wasn’t quite “old hat,” but as a three-time winner, it wasn’t a new experience. “I’m old, I’m old,” she said. “I’ve been in the business forever.” Conversely, Song is a 2008 graduate of MIT with a degree in earth sciences. She earned her masters in science writing in 2009. “We were so thrilled when she turned 25,” said White, “because she could rent a car.”

The team members took responsibility for different aspects of the writing. McGowan went to Michigan to get the human-interest stories of the people most affected by the spill. Song never went to Michigan. As a scientist, she focused on research and interviews with other scientists, to ensure that the facts reported about dilbit and the clean up were accurate and accessible to general readers. Hasemyer did the follow-up articles focusing on the after-effects of the spill and the replacement of line 6B.

For Hasemyer, a 30-year veteran investigative reporter who had been laid off from his full-time job at the San Diego Union Tribune, writing The Dilbit Disaster was an opportunity to return to his roots. “I think journalists have an obligation to practice journalism in the public interest. And that’s what I’m doing now. Using journalism to make a difference.”

The Michigan Dilbit Disaster Three Years Later

Clean up continues. A new spill in Arkansas

As Marshall neared the third anniversary of the nation’s worst inland pipeline spill in April 2013, another small community suffered something very similar. Exxon’s post-World War II Pegasus pipeline developed a 22-foot rupture in Mayflower, Arkansas oozing 210,000 gallons of dilbit oil into a residential neighborhood.

Like Marshall, regulators and first responders did know that the oil was dilbit and along with residents evacuated from 22 homes still have no idea of the exact mixture that came up from the underground pipe. Citizen groups are battling state regulators and Exxon over air and water quality issues as the clean up continues.

Most of the million gallons of dilbit that spilled out of pipeline 6B into a wetland in Marshall, Michigan, soiling 36 miles of the Kalamazoo River, has been recovered. The worst fear, that it would reach Lake Michigan contaminating the source of drinking water for 12 million people including the city of Chicago, was never realized.

Enbridge was fined $3.7 million by the Department of Transportation, the agency that oversees the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration. Additional fines levied by the EPA and Michigan are anticipated. Last summer, the National Transportation Safety Board issued a report on the spill that sounded an alarm about the federal government’s lax enforcement of rules regarding pipeline safety.

The report accused Enbridge of “a complete breakdown of safety,” including a leak detection system that fell far short of the company’s claims. Advanced leak detection systems find only one in 20 leaks. Four times as many leaks are discovered by members of the public.

Congress passed new pipeline safety legislation in the wake of the Michigan spill with increased penalties, but the bill did not include a provision to mandate automatic shut-off valves, nor did it require operators to disclose whether dilbit is being transported in a pipeline or its chemical make-up.

While the Kalamazoo River appears to have recovered, beneath the surface thousands of gallons of bitumen remain on the river bottom. The EPA estimates the amount at 180,000 gallons. Pipeline operator Enbridge believes the number is no more than 25,000 gallons.

The EPA has ordered Enbridge to dredge three sections of the river. Ralph Dollhopf who supervised the cleanup for the EPA admitted, “We know we are not going to get all of the oil out.” One of the dredging sites is a mile from a SuperFund site where 120,000 pounds of polychlorinated biphenyls were deposited by paper mills in another era. PCBs are implicated in a wide range of cancers. No one wants to risk mixing those toxic chemicals with the bitumen.

Balls of bitumen also collected in the deep waters beside a dam that once generated power for a hydroelectric plant. Demolishing the dam would return the river to its natural state and lower the water level to make dredging easier, however not all residents are happy at the thought of removing the historic structure.

Michigan’s Department of Environmental Quality has collected 5,000 soil and groundwater samples to determine if the heavy metals found in bitumen are present in elevated quantities. Those studies will taken another year to be completed.

Enbridge recently released figures estimating the cost of the three year cleanup at over $1 billion.

After the NTSB report on the Kalamazoo River spill, the publisher of Inside Climate News, David Sassoon, wrote an editorial in the New York Times that cautioned, “Now that the industry is aiming to fill almost a quarter of America’s domestic oil needs from western Canadian sources, we need a transparent and informed discussion about dilbit’s risks and benefits, up-to-date laws and regulations, and improved leak detection.”

As of this writing, the most advanced above ground leak-detection technology is not planned for the Keystone XL pipeline.

Subscribe to The Reader Newsletter

Our awesome email newsletter briefing tells you everything you need to know about what’s going on in Omaha. Delivered to your inbox every day at 11:00am.

Become a Supporting Member

Subscribe to and become a supporting member to keep locally owned news alive. We need to pay writers, so you can read even more. We won’t waste your time, our news will focus, as it always has, on the stories other media miss and a cultural community — from arts to foods to local independent business — that defines us. Please support your locally-owned news media by becoming a member today.

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