BP Defines Deviancy Down

The national press is slow off the mark on the huge oil spill in Michigan

The national press stuffs a big story today on a massive new oil spill in the Kalamazoo River.

Size, of course, is all about context. And unfortunately for the Michiganders affected by it, it comes in the wake of the gargantuan BP oil spill in the Gulf, which dumped 94 million to 184 million gallons of crude into the Gulf of Mexico over three months (assuming it’s stopped for good).

The Kalamazoo River spill is “just” a million gallons. But that makes it the sixth biggest spill in U.S. in the last forty-plus years, if this Reuters list is complete.

The New York Times stuffs it on A13 and briefed it yesterday. The Wall Street Journal dropped a sentence in its “What’s News” box yesterday and briefs it on A4 today, which is unfortunate because it has a much longer story online, if you can find it. That’s not good enough, folks.

Imagine how this would be covered by these guys if somebody dumped a million gallons of crude into the Hudson River. Cover it like that.

The spill happened on Monday. Reuters and Dow Jones Newswires wrote 300 words about it then, including the size, which the spiller, Enbridge Energy Partners, estimated then at 19,000 barrels (800,000 gallons), which the EPA says is low.

The Associated Press was on it on Tuesday and it got brief mentions on NBC Nightly News and the PBS NewsHour. Diane Sawyer on World News Tonight gave it short shrift, too. Here’s her entire report:

And something we were surprised to see, 1300 miles of north of the gulf, believe it or not, oil-soaked birds.

But these from a different leak. More than 800,000 gallons of oil pouring out of a 30-inch pipeline in southern Michigan, flowing into the Kalamazoo River. A Canadian company owns that pipeline. Skimmers, booms, cleanup workers are on the scene there.

All righty!

Reuters next weighed in on Wednesday—this time with the all-important Enbridge investors’ angle. Here’s the lede, no kiddin’:

It will be days before Enbridge Inc can get a damaged section of oil pipeline in Michigan back into service as it begins assessing the cause of the rupture and cleans up crude fouling a river, the company’s chief executive said Wednesday.

Dow Jones ran with an 800-word Journal dispatch late last night. Alas, only about 150 words of it made it into the actual newspaper today, in the brief mentioned above.

Today, finally, the coverage is picking up online.

Some questions I have. Is it better or worse that this spill is in a contained area, the Kalamazoo River, than if it were in a huge sea like the Gulf or even Prince William Sound? And who is Enbridge? We need some bread-and-butter business reporting on this outfit. The AP has a good story in that direction today:

A Canadian company whose pipeline leaked hundreds of thousands of oil into a Michigan river boasts on its website of being “an industry leader in pipeline safety and integrity.”

A decade’s worth of leaks, an explosion and regulatory violations throughout the Great Lakes region and elsewhere in the U.S. suggest otherwise.

Enbridge Inc. or its affiliates have been cited for 30 enforcement actions since 2002 by the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration , the U.S. Department of Transportation’s regulatory arm.

More like this. Don’t let BP define deviancy down.

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Ryan Chittum is a former Wall Street Journal reporter, and deputy editor of The Audit, CJR's business section. If you see notable business journalism, give him a heads-up at rc2538@columbia.edu. Follow him on Twitter at @ryanchittum.