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About the same time as BP's Macondo blowout in the Gulf of Mexico, another oil spill was taking place in southern Michigan, near Marshall. A pipeline carrying diluted bitumen, or dilbit, spilled about 1 million gallons of -- stuff -- into Talmadge Creek and the Kalamazoo River.

If you've never heard of dilbit, you're not alone. Canadian tar sands are way too  viscous to be pumped through a pipeline. Coming out of the ground, it's about the consistancy of peanut butter. To pump that stuff (called bitumen), oil companies dilute the bitumen with a variety of chemicals (called "condensate" or "diluent") to form a toxic brew called dilbit. The exact nature of these chemicals is a closely held proprietary secret, but one of them is benzene, a known carcinogen.

One of the problems with dilbit is this: once the stuff leaks, the volatile diluents evaporate, leaving the heavier-than-water bitumen to sink to the bottoms of rivers, creeks, or where ever it has flowed since the spill. Conventional oil-spill cleanup technology, like booms and skimmers, work on the principle that oil floats on water, which means conventional oil-spill technology can't handle a spill of dilbit.

Jim Rutherford, the public health officer for Michigan's Calhoun County, said he had "no idea what I was driving into," when he rushed to Marshall the day [Enbridge pipeline] 6B ruptured.

"Enbridge was caught off guard initially, much like all of us were," Rutherford said in an interview. "We just weren't ready for anything of this magnitude. … We didn't even know the nature of the type of crude."

Now Elizabeth McGowan and Lisa Song of InsideClimateNews have come out with a major story on the Michigan dilbit disaster that is a must-read for anyone who's wondering about the Keystone XL pipeline and it potential consequences. Among their findings:

  • In Congressional testimony just weeks before the pipeline rupture, Enbridge executives testified that automatic controls would alert the company of any spill within minutes. When pipeline 6B ruptured near Marshall, a series of seven automatic alarms were triggered in the Enbridge control facilities, but operators ignored them. It took sixteen hours from the time of the rupture before Enbridge realized that a spill had really occurred. The pipeline continued to spill during that entire time.
  • For months after the spill, Enbridge refused to come clean on the nature of the spilled material, allowing both residents and local officials to falsely believe it was conventional oil. This resulted in huge amounts of wasted effort on techniques inappropriate to the cleanup problem.
  • The place where the pipeline ruptured was flagged as a problem three times before the pipeline burst, but Enbridge declined to fix the pipeline in that area. Regulations did not require it.
  • There are no firm standards for how high benzene levels in the air need to be for health and safety. This left local officials guessing as to where and when to order evacuations of the area around the spill.

Here are links to the story in three parts:
Dilbit Disaster, part 1
Dilbit Disaster, part 2
Dilbit Disaster, part 3
Dilbit Disaster, epilog

Here's the e-book edition for download.

It's now two years since the Marshall spill, and only now is the cleanup nearing completion.

Originally posted to The Numerate Historian on Fri Jun 29, 2012 at 09:46 AM PDT.

Also republished by Gulf Watchers Group.

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