Tar Sands: When This Oil Spills, It's 'A Whole New Monster' What could be worse than a ruptured pipeline of crude oil? A ruptured pipeline of tar sands oil — a thick, sticky substance. Cleanup of a 2010 spill in Michigan's Kalamazoo River took much longer and was far harder than anyone had anticipated. It's now a cautionary tale for people in the middle of the new Keystone pipeline's path.

When This Oil Spills, It's 'A Whole New Monster'

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This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Melissa Block.

The high price of oil has spurred the United States and Canada to develop petroleum from their tar sands deposits. It takes a lot of work and money to get oil from tar sands. It so thick and sticky and full of sand that companies have to scrape it out or shoot steam deep underground to liquefy it. To carry all of this new oil, fresh pipelines are going up across the U.S. Many people welcome the jobs and money that come with them.

But as NPR's Elizabeth Shogren reports, with those benefits also come spills, hundreds each year, and that frightens some who live in the paths of these new pipelines.

ELIZABETH SHOGREN, BYLINE: Sometime in the next few months, David Daniel probably will have to stand by and watch as bulldozers knock down his thick forest and dig up the streams he loves.


SHOGREN: We're walking from his house in east Texas, down a shady path. There are water oak, sweet gum, and hickory trees all around us.

DAVID DANIEL: My wife and I actually got married right down here.

SHOGREN: David lives about a two and a half hour drive from Dallas. His property is one of more than a thousand on the southern stretch of what's known as the Keystone XL pipeline. You've probably heard of the northern part of the Keystone. That leg was held up by President Obama but construction has already started on the southern half.

For years, David has tried to keep his property out of it or at least figure out what risks will come with it.

DANIEL: I want to know exactly what I'm dealing with. Maybe other folks want to go through life with blinders on but I want to know how to protect my family. And without knowing everything, you don't really know how.


SHOGREN: We stop near a creek that's so clean he can drink from it.

DANIEL: It's nice and cold.

SHOGREN: He's tells me he only found out that a pipeline was coming his way when he got a call from a neighbor. She said surveyors were on his land. He rushed home to investigate.

DANIEL: And it's pretty faded, but you can still see exactly what I saw.

SHOGREN: Surveyors stakes with some cryptic writing on them.

DANIEL: I didn't know what KXL was. Thirty-six inch, I understood what that is. That meant pretty big. And PL had to be pipeline. You know, my heart just sunk that this is the piece of the property that we fell in love with and this pipeline would tear all this up.

SHOGREN: A few months later he got a letter from a corporation named TransCanada. They wanted permission to send out more surveyors.

DANIEL: They're going to take me to court if I did not comply. That's what the letter states. And so, I called the attorney up and I said, you know, I've got questions. I don't know anything about this project. And he said, well, the only question I have for you is which pile to put you in: the cooperative pile or the (CENSORED) uncooperative pile.

SHOGREN: The lawyer doesn't remember the conversation and says he doesn't use such language. But David says the conversation is seared into his memory. The company kept threatening David that if he didn't give them permission, they'd get it from the courts through eminent domain; the same way highways get rights of way through people's yards.

What David wanted most from TransCanada is answers. He actually drew up a list of 54 questions. Things like: what's the risk of a spill and what kind of damage would one cause?

TransCanada told him in writing that questions about spills were hypothetical because their pipeline would be designed not to rupture. David eventually gave in to TransCanada because he felt he had no other choice. But around that same time, something happened that would help get David some answers.


SHOGREN: That's from two years ago. A different pipeline carrying tar sands oil burst. It blanked blanketed 40 miles of the Kalamazoo River in Michigan. When David heard these reports, he got scared.

DANIEL: We didn't have to talk in hypotheticals any more. I had a real life example of what we thought could happen here.

SHOGREN: David decided to go to Michigan. One of the people he met there was whistleblower John Bolenbaugh. When I met up with Bolenbaugh, he takes me on an odd kind of treasure hunt. We crash through jumbles of brush and tall grass.

JOHN BOLENBAUGH: You might get little pokies on you.

SHOGREN: On the bank of the Kalamazoo River, he sets up a video camera because that's what he always does.


SHOGREN: And then he hurls himself in.

What do you see John?

BOLENBAUGH: Lots of oil...

SHOGREN: This is two years after the spill. He holds up a blue latex glove. It's covered with black stuff.

BOLENBAUGH: Very sticky. It's like molasses but even a little thicker and it smells like asphalt kind of. When it was fresh, it was a horrible, horrible smell. Like they just paved your road, but they paved it on all four sides of your house and you had to stay there for months. It was that bad.

SHOGREN: Bolenbaugh is one of those larger-than-life characters and you believe maybe half of what he says. He sees himself as the Erin Brockovich of this disaster.

When he wasn't in prison or in the Navy, Bolenbaugh was a contractor working on pipelines. So when the spill happened, he got a call: Come in and help clean it up. But he got angry when crews were told to bury the oil, so he started taking photos and videos with his cellphone on the sly.

BOLENBAUGH: If you notice in this picture, the oil is still all there. But we're raking dirt over the top of it. And that's what we were ordered to do.

SHOGREN: Bolenbaugh was fired after he went to the Environmental Protection Agency and the media. But after he went public, Enbridge, the company that runs the pipeline, had to re-do cleanups and it cost them a lot.

BOLENBAUGH: And I got them good. And I'm proud of myself for what I've done.

SHOGREN: Enbridge and the EPA dispute Bolenbaugh's interpretation. But they don't dispute that the clean up has taken far longer than expected. The EPA thought it would take a couple months. Two years and $800 million later, it's still going on. The cost eclipses every other onshore oil cleanup in U.S. history. A big reason why takes us to our next question.

One of the things David Daniel, the Texas homeowner, wanted to know was really basic. What is tar sands oil?

STEVE HAMILTON: OK, should we launch this boat?

SHOGREN: Michigan State University professor Steve Hamilton is an independent science advisor on the Enbridge cleanup.

We're paddling a stretch of the Kalamazoo that was closed for two years.


SHOGREN: Hamilton sticks his paddle into the shallow river and starts poking the bottom.

HAMILTON: You see just a little bit of sheen being produced here. It's starting to come up from this as I disturb it.

SHOGREN: This oil got stuck on the bottom because it's heavy, heavier than almost anything that's considered oil.

HAMILTON: It's not quite solid and not quite liquid. It's tarry, is another way you can think of it. So you could, you know, pick it up and shape it into a ball practically. It's very, very stick, very hard to get off.

SHOGREN: Oil usually floats on water, so clean-up crews focus on skimming it off the surface. But cleaning up this spill was much more complicated. EPA's Midwestern chief, Susan Hedman, says they had to develop new techniques to remove it from the river bottom.

SUSAN HEDMAN: The EPA staff that worked on this that had responded to oil spills over many, many years, had never encountered a spill of this type of material in this unprecedented volume, under these kinds of conditions.

SHOGREN: Scientists are only beginning to study how tar sands behaves when it's spilled, and whether it might wear out a pipeline.

OK. So, Here's the last question we'll look at from David Daniel's scouting trip to Michigan.

DANIEL: One of my many questions was, if there's a spill and we have to leave, are you going to take care of us, you know?

SHOGREN: In Michigan, he got an earful on that one from Michelle BarlondSmith.


SHOGREN: She and her husband lived in a trailer park on the Kalamazoo. Trees there still show oil rings about three feet up their trunks. Michelle says the fumes were sickening for months.

MICHELLE BARLONDSMITH: Besides the splitting headache and the dizziness and, we call it the crab walk, which is where you think you're walking straight but you look like a drunk walking down the street. You couldn't eat because it felt like you had two rocks in your stomach just pounding. And if you tried to eat, unpleasant things happened.

SHOGREN: The EPA measured high levels of benzene in the air after the spill. Benzene is a chemical in petroleum. In high enough doses it can wreak havoc with your nervous system.

Michelle's husband, Tracy Smith, feels abandoned by the company and the government.

TRACY SMITH: We were pretty much alone. They did not help us at all.

SHOGREN: These stories haunt David Daniel.

DANIEL: I learned that this is a whole new monster than what folks in Texas are used to dealing with. This is not a regular crude oil pipeline. This is something completely different. It's not being treated differently.

SHOGREN: Now, the company involved in the Kalamazoo spill is not the same company David Daniel is dealing with. He's dealing with TransCanada. TransCanada says it's trying to learn as much as it can from the Kalamazoo spill.

The company's Grady Semmens stresses the pipeline that busted in Michigan was more than 40-years-old.

GRADY SEMMENS: The new pipelines we want to build are going to be the newest and safest pipelines ever built in the U.S. They'll be a lot newer than that line that Enbridge operates. And we are quite confident that any kind of an incident, you know, even approaching that scale will be very quickly identified and responded to by TransCanada.

SHOGREN: TransCanada has studied whether its new Keystone Pipeline system could rupture. The pipelines would run from Canada to the Gulf Coast. The company predicts a spill could happen twice every 10 years. Some scientists believe they underestimated the risk. Another TransCanada pipeline has been in service for two years and already suffered 14 small spills in the U.S.

Still, Semmens says pipelines are safer than transporting oil on ships, trains or trucks. And, he says...

SEMMENS: It's oil that's produced here in North America. It supports the millions of jobs that are in North America in the energy industry. And it can replace a lot of oil that's currently being imported from other countries.

SHOGREN: TransCanada just started construction on the southern section of its pipeline. It'll go through about a thousand private properties, including David Daniel's forest in east Texas.

After what he's learned, David has warned TransCanada to stay off his property. But he knows in his heart he'll probably hear bulldozers soon.

Elizabeth Shogren, NPR News.

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