InsideClimate out front

Investigation of Kalamazoo oil spill calamity led the pack

In early July, the media covered a long awaited report from the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB), which blamed the 2010 oil spill in Michigan’s Kalamazoo River on the pipeline operator’s “pervasive organizational failures” and “weak regulation” at the federal level, but one website beat even NTSB to the punch.

Two weeks earlier, InsideClimate News had published the results of its seven-month investigation that disclosed many of the same details about what led to the most expensive onshore spill in US history: the bogus avowals of preparedness by Enbridge, the operator of the pipeline that dumped more than a million gallons into the river and a nearby creek; the company’s bumbling response to the rupture; and the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration’s inept oversight in the face of many warning signs. The three-part series, called “The Dilbit Disaster: Inside the Biggest Oil Spill You’ve Never Heard Of,” was a superb example of how proactive journalism gets ahead of the story rather than waiting to respond to official “news.”

The highly readable, character-driven narrative, by reporters Elizabeth McGowan and Lisa Song, described in meticulous detail how an accident waiting to happen came to fruition, how the community, Enbridge, and local, state, and federal officials struggled to respond, and what became of those efforts. The series (which is available as an e-book) also included a multimedia package, a primer on the type of oil spilled, a timeline of the unfolding disaster, and an epilogue.

It was a calamity “unlike any other,” according to InsideClimate’s publisher David Sassoon, because the line that broke was carrying bitumen, a thick, dirty oil from Canada’s tar sands region that has to be thinned with chemicals in order to flow through the pipe system. Federal and local responders, including the Environmental Protection Agency, thought they were dealing with conventional crude oil. It took them more than a week to realize that it actually was diluted bitumen, or “dilbit.”

Enbridge’s failings were numerous, InsideClimate found. It failed to maintain its pipelines despite signs of damage; it responded slowly and clumsily once the spill began, ignoring multiple alarms; and it never told officials it was pumping dilbit because the government doesn’t track the type of oil that flows through each pipe.

The problem with bitumen is that it’s heavier than water. When dilbit spilled in Michigan, the thinning agents, which contain known carcinogens, evaporated into the air, and most of the rest sank to the bottom in the form of tar balls, rendering the cleanup process and public-health response much more difficult (and expensive).

Despite federal warnings that regulators need more information about what’s flowing through the nation’s pipelines, there’s an almost total lack of independent scientific research about what’s in dilbit, whether or not it’s more corrosive (to pipes) or harmful (to life and ecosystems) than conventional crude, InsideClimate revealed. Officials are also unprepared to enforce existing safety regulations.

Many of these details emerged in the coverage that followed the release of NTSB’s accident report in early July, but major media outlets have paid them scant attention in general. As McGowen and Song reported in Part 1 of their series:

Despite the scope of the damage, the Enbridge spill hasn’t attracted much national attention, perhaps because it occurred just 10 days after oil stopped spewing from BP’s Macondo well in the Gulf of Mexico, which had ruptured three months earlier. Early reports about the Enbridge spill also downplayed its seriousness. Just about everybody, including the EPA officials who rushed to Marshall, expected the mess to be cleaned up in a couple of months.

One exception to the lackluster media coverage of the spill was the hard-hitting reporting at OnEarth Magazine, a publication of the Natural Resources Defense Council, and Michigan Messenger, a publication of The American Independent News Network, that revealed that the pipe was moving dilbit despite the dissembling of Enbridge’s CEO, Pat Daniel.

Crediting this work, InsideClimate kept the pressure on. Indeed, in the five years since it launched, the outlet has grown into a bastion of investigative reporting with a long institutional memory, following up on stories that the rest of the attention-deficit-disordered media has either ignored or forgotten about. Because of that persistence, it was able to reveal important details about the dilbit disaster before other outlets, and before even the government’s own inspectors—exemplary work, to say the least.

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Curtis Brainard writes on science and environment reporting. Follow him on Twitter @cbrainard. Tags: , , , , , , ,