Frozen Lake Michigan by Steve Johnson, flickr

BP’s oil spill in the Great Lakes grows

Posted on Posted in Unite

BP has just released new spill numbers that are more than double the original estimates – as much as 1,600 gallons of oil has been released into southern Lake Michigan. The reason for the change of heart –  BP has now recovered more oil than they originally reported released, as reported by MLive:

Company representatives now estimate between 630 and 1,638 gallons of oil has been recovered since the spill at BP’s Whiting Refinery on Monday, March 24. It was estimated Wednesday that between 377 and 755 gallons of crude oil had spilled. BP said the initial numbers were based off visual observation.

The fox is guarding the hen house.

Why does this matter? BP knows that they will face (at least) one fine/penalty based on the amount of oil that they report as being released. Under the Clean Water Act, at a minimum BP will be fined  by the EPA based on spill figures alone. Taking that into account, why do regulators continue to rely on the at-fault party to report spill figures?

Tar sands spreads beyond the boom in the Kalamazoo River
Tar sands spreads beyond the boom in the Kalamazoo River

Hum…where have I seen this before? Oh yes, Enbridge! In 2010, they originally reported over 800,000 gallons spilled into the Kalamazoo River watershed but that number strongly conflicts with the recovered figure of over 1 million gallons. In addition, according to the EPA, an estimated 180,000 gallons remain in the river because tar sands bitumen sinks making it nearly impossible to clean up with conventional techniques (like the equipment BP continues to use  – boom).

Is this tar sands?

BP has reported that this release is a mixture of light and heavy crude, which is a key indicator for tar sands diluted bitumen. Understanding the type of product spilled is critical for a proper response – so why is it impossible to get a straight answer?

This is a lesson the EPA learned the hard way with the Enbridge tar sands spill into the Kalamazoo River. Months after that release, it was discovered that oil continued to migrate under the surface of the water because the bitumen is heavier than water, causing it to sink and stick to everything. During that release, Enbridge repeatedly denied a release of tar sands diluted bitumen because of political issues. BP appears to be doing the same by avoiding this classification, at least with the media and public.

Can you clean up tar sands in freshwater?

Enbridge dredges oil out of the Kalamazoo River system. Photo by EPA
Enbridge dredges oil out of the Kalamazoo River system. Photo by EPA

This brings me to my next point – Considering the mix of heavy oil, why is BP only addressing this spill with boom and shoreline clean up? And why does the response seem to be based only on surface sheen?

From what I can tell, EPA is basing the response on surface level sheen -they should know by now (post Enbridge) that tar sands diluted bitumen will quickly separate from the light diluents, leaving the sticky, heavy bitumen to sink. Once that has happened, surface level sheen for the bitumen will no longer occur unless it becomes aggravated, forcing the heavy oil to move and possibly resurface.

With the Kalamazoo River spill, Enbridge is still trying to figure out how to recover over 100,000 gallons of submerged bitumen. They are attempting to aggravate the bitumen by blasting the oil with high pressure water and air so they can collect it down river. When that method does not work, they have to actually dredge out many parts of the river. Considering the depths of Lake Michigan and the Great Lakes, it is critical that a response is put in place that captures the oil before it starts to separate and sink.

I believe it is time that the EPA develop a new baseline for spill response and recovery, other than pointing to surface sheen. Considering the large number of tar sands pipeline projects happening all across the Great Lakes – it is critical that they come up with a more effective method for response and recovery.

False promises on spill response in Great Lakes?

The current spill response is a far cry from what has been promised by responding agencies for the Great Lakes. In particular, this conversation has been front a center because of Enbridge’s 60-year-old oil pipeline that crosses the Straits of Mackinac, which just went through a 10% pressure increase so they can pump more oil through the Great Lakes into Canada. In a recent story by Petoskey News:

The Coast Guard would work with an oil spill removal company out of Detroit, which uses a two-man submarine to vacuum oil from the lake bottom. Divers, too, could recover oil from the bottom of the lake.

From what I can tell, none of this technology has been utilized with the current spill. Expanding tar sands pipeline and refineries have brought a lot of concerned citizens, organizations and Great Lakes businesses to the table demanding pipeline safety and improved spill response plans. In particular, it is critical that our regulatory system recognize that tar sands releases are not the same as conventional oil spills – there needs to be immediate and formal action by regulatory agencies and lawmakers to develop response plans that reflect this!

If you would like to hear more about tar sands in the Great Lakes region please consider attending “Life Amongst the ‘Tar Sands’ Oil Pipelines: Impacts on Rural Communities and the Environment” on Tuesday April 1st from  – ck Visitors Center. This event is free and open to the public and the co-sponsors for this Reilly Forum event are Notre Dame’s Law School, the Center for Sustainable Energy at Notre Dame (cSEND), and GLOBES an interdisciplinary graduate training program in environment and society.


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