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Oil Spill from Ruptured Pipeline Threatens Lake Michigan

Jul 30, 2010 | Parker Waichman LLP

A pipeline leak that has spilled anywhere from 800,000 gallons to 1 million gallons of oil into Michigan’s Kalamazoo River has resulted in evacuations and is threatening Lake Michigan. Residents living close to the oil spill have been told to stop using well water for drinking and cooking.

The 30-inch underground pipeline ruptured sometime between Sunday evening and early Monday morning. It was discovered on Monday morning on a creek near the company’s pump station in Marshall, Mich. According to The Wall Street Journal, the pipeline is owned by the Canadian company Enbridge Inc., and is used to move light synthetic, heavy and medium crude oil northeast about 1,900 miles between Canadian and the US.

According to the Journal, the pipeline has been capped, but 20 miles of the Kalamazoo River have been fouled, and the oil spill is heading towards Lake Michigan.

Yesterday, the Calhoun County Public Health Department recommended the immediate evacuation of residents living closest to the site of the spill because of elevated levels of Benzene in the air. That order affected about 30 to 50 homes, and came on the heels of about 30 evacuations ordered earlier this week.

In addition, 100 families along the contaminated Kalamazoo River have been asked to use bottled water for consumption.

So far, the oil has traveled at least 35 miles downstream from where it leaked, passing through Battle Creek, and was headed toward Morrow Lake. Lake Michigan is a mere 80 miles away. The stretch of river impacted by the spill was already undergoing contamination cleanup under the federal Superfund program.

According to the Associated Press, Michigan’s Gov. Jennifer Granholm (D) has said that if the spill does reach Lake Michigan, it would be a “tragedy of historic proportions.” Granholm has characterized Enbridge’s and the federal Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) response to the oil spill as “wholly inadequate.” According to The Detroit Free Press, Granholm has complained the eight boom sites set up so far were a fraction of the 20 boom sites that she was told by the EPA would be in place — along with more vacuum trucks and skimmers.

As so often seems to happen in a disaster of this type, questions are now being raised about the conduct of the company that owned the pipeline. According to the Free Press, Enbridge was notified twice this year of potential problems involving old pipe prone to rupturing and an inadequate system for monitoring internal corrosion. In January, the U. .S. Department of Transportation’s Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PMHSA) sent a warning letter to the company stating that corrosion monitoring in its oil pipeline connecting the U.S. to Canada did not comply with federal regulations. The PHMSA didn’t penalize the company, but the agency advised it to correct the problem, the Free Press said.

According to The Wall Street Journal, since 2002, Enbridge has received more than a dozen warnings or citations for violating safety and other standards and fined tens of thousands of dollars as a result, according to a review of correspondence maintained by the PMHSA.

The timing of Enbridge’s reporting of the spill is also coming under scrutiny. According to the Free Press, 911 calls of natural gas odor were reported in the area Sunday evening, more than 12 hours before Enbridge says it learned of the leak. Company officials say they reported the spill as soon as they were allowed under government regulations Tuesday morning, but on Wednesday, that time was revised to 1:33 p.m. Tuesday, the Free Press said.

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