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At the time of the 2010 spill, Michelle BarlondSmith lived less than 200 feet from the Kalamazoo River in Baker Estates, a mobile home park located in Battle Creek — about six miles downstream from the rupture site.
“My husband and I got home late that night, and when we got out of the car, we could smell it. It’s an awful smell like gas, nail polish, the whole nine yards,” she said.
“I felt an immediate headache, like an ice pick through my eye. The next morning, the smell was still there, and a neighbor popped his head out and said there had been an oil spill in the river.”
In the days that followed, BarlondSmith saw her neighbors become sick. When she saw a small child in tears, vomiting in the street, she knew she had to do something.
“I started yelling and screaming, and it’s been three and a half years, and I’m still yelling and screaming. I’ll be doing it … well, as long as I’m on the earth, let’s just put it that way,” she said.
With no authorities on the scene, BarlondSmith went door to door to see if anyone needed assistance. Years later, an elderly woman told her she had heard the knocking but was so ill from the toxic fumes that she couldn’t even get from her couch to the door.
It wasn’t until 10 days after the spill that authorities suggested that the residents evacuate. Enbridge did not respond to Al Jazeera’s request for comment on its response to the rupture.
The EPA measured high levels of benzene near the spill site, but there have been no health impact studies for communities downriver.
Memory problems, asthma and other respiratory problems, rashes, heart attacks, cancer and kidney issues are among the most prevalent illnesses BarlondSmith reported from interviews with residents along the river.
Since there have been no long-term health studies on tar sands oil and dilbit, it is impossible to know if the illnesses BarlondSmith said she has seen since the spill were caused by the oil.
But she said that Enbridge lied about the timeline of the spill, making her question the company’s commitment to the safety of Michigan residents. BarlondSmith testified at a congressional hearing in Washington after photographs she took of the spill showed Enbridge cleanup crews at work before the company publicly admitted there was a problem.
A 30-mile stretch of the river was closed for two years while Enbridge tried to clean up the spill, spending more than $800 million. After authorities declared the Kalamazoo River safe, some residents reported skin rashes after swimming in it. They added that animal and plant life in the river all but disappeared. Residents began to question the safety of the river, especially in areas downstream that were declared safe.
Craig Ritter, an outdoorsman, and Chris Wahmhoff, a Michigan Coalition Against Tar Sands member, both grew up on the river. It was Ritter who first discovered an unusual material on the bottom of the river while fishing last spring.
Ritter said that he picked it up and that it felt light and could be easily broken apart. The mysterious material was easily caught in the current when he dropped it back in, and he watched it roll downstream.
“Once I noticed it, I saw more. I see them everywhere along the bottom of the river now and buried in the banks,” he told Al Jazeera. He said he began to suspect the substance was corexit, a controversial dispersant used to grab oil in the cleanup after the BP spill in the Gulf of Mexico in 2010. Corexit has never been tested for long-term effects on humans or the environment.
After the BP spill, scientists said that corexit could be deadly to humans and marine life. What’s more, when combined with crude oil, the mixture becomes several times more toxic than either could be alone.
“These people are lab rats,” Ritter said. Not only does the corexit cause the oil to sink to the bottom, making it more difficult to clean up, but it also breaks down oil, causing it to be more easily absorbed into the food chain, toxicologists report.
Though Enbridge said it didn’t use the controversial dispersant, Ritter said he had samples tested and the results showed the Kalamazoo River samples matched samples of corexit found in the Gulf. The tests also confirmed the oil on the material was an exact match for Enbridge line 6B oil.
“If it wasn’t Enbridge, how did it get there? That’s one hell of a coincidence,” Ritter said.
Twenty miles outside what Enbridge said was the “contained” area of the river, in Plainwell, Mich., Wahmhoff waded into the Kalamazoo’s frozen bank last week and broke up some of the ice. Within seconds, he pulled out a piece of corexit from the bottom of the river.
Though health and safety are some of the most immediate issues raised by energy industry activities, the use of eminent domain by a foreign company to condemn private American-owned land has also raised concerns for some landowners.
Carol and Tom Brimhall own a 38-acre property near Stockbridge, Mich., along the route of line 6B. They said that on June 7, 2012, they received a letter from Enbridge project manager Douglas E. Reichley offering them a “good faith written offer” of $11,872 if the Brimhalls came to an “amicable agreement.” Enbridge needed to replace the ruptured pipeline and needed some of their land.
“As an incentive to bring this matter to an immediate amicable conclusion, Enbridge is willing to pay you the total sum of $46,453 for signature on the amendment to the existing easement and a temporary workspace agreement,” the letter read.
“Enbridge believes that honest, fair negotiations with landowners is always the best way to acquire pipeline easements," Jason Manshum, Enbridge’s media relations senior adviser, told Al Jazeera in an emailed statement. “Eminent domain authority will be used only if a mutually reasonable agreement cannot be reached.” Because the Brimhalls didn’t agree to the deal, Enbridge filed a lawsuit on June 28, 2012.
“The judge basically said, ‘I’m not going to argue with what the public utility company said it needs. We'll let you do what you want,’” Tom Brimhall said. Regulatory approval was given to Enbridge on May 24, 2012, by the Michigan Public Service Commission, which found the project to be in the public’s interest.
Three nonviolent protesters from Michigan Coalition Against Tar Sands attempted to stop Enbridge from working on the line 6B replacement by locking onto equipment near the Brimhalls’ land in Stockbridge, Mich., last summer.
Barb Carter, Lissa Leggio and Vicci Hamlin said the action was necessary to avert what they said would be the next disaster after the Kalamazoo spill and to protect the safety of their friends and family. They were found guilty in an Ingham County court for misdemeanor trespassing and resisting and obstructing police. They face up to two years in jail and will be sentenced on March 5.
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