Bill Pugliano / Getty Images

Enbridge, Michigan settle over 2010 Kalamazoo River oil spill

Oil giant agrees to pay state $75 million to restore waterway, a week after separate settlement reached with victims

Oil giant Enbridge Energy will pay Michigan $75 million to restore a waterway contaminated in 2010 by 800,000 gallons of oil — one of the largest inland spills in U.S. history — state officials said on Wednesday.

The settlement comes a week after the company settled in a separate class action lawsuit over damages to local residents as a result of the spill, with compensation including pre-paid gift cards and additional payments for some living near the contaminated area.

An Enbridge pipeline ruptured on July 26, 2010, near Battle Creek, Michigan, contaminating a 40-mile stretch of the nearby Kalamazoo River.

Residual oil has remained in the river despite Enbridge’s $1 billion cleanup. In some areas, if the riverbed is disturbed, pockets of oil still float to the surface, according to local residents.

As part of a settlement filed Tuesday in Calhoun County, Enbridge will be required to continue monitoring the impacts of the spill. It will also spend $75 million on projects including improved access to boating and fishing on the river, and rehabilitating 300 acres of wetlands.

Currently, residents caution against fishing on the river in the area of the spill.

“Every time I see someone fishing here in Kalamazoo I warn them and bring up the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality website that says what fish you can eat — which is basically none of them,” said Chris Wahmhoff, a local resident.

He said while the water is not as contaminated as it was in the months after the spill, there were still pockets of oil sheen in almost any stretch of the river in the contaminated zone.

“Anybody that’s aware there was an oil spill doesn’t go in the river. I would say 80 percent of the community is very aware that the water isn’t safe,” Wahmhoff said.

The settlement requires Enbridge to file monthly progress reports on its cleanup efforts, and to pay Michigan $12 million for legal costs and for overseeing the company’s restoration efforts.

“Enbridge is pleased to have reached this settlement with the State of Michigan and it underscores our commitment to restoring the affected river system and working with people who use this natural resource,” Enbridge spokesman Michael Barnes said in an emailed statement. “For more than 60 years, Enbridge has been a good neighbor in Michigan.”

The 2010 spill not only damaged the Kalamazoo River and nearby waterways and wetlands, but also affected the health of nearby residents who have complained of illnesses they blame on Enbridge.

“A lot of the folks in the region have long-term health consequences,” said Andy Pearson, a coordinator for MN350, a Minnesota affiliate of the national environmental group 350.org.

The toxic fumes that emanated from oil, which was diluted with bitumen to make it easier to transport through Enbridge’s pipeline, reportedly smelled like nail polish and gas, according to residents who complained of severe headaches and nausea in the immediate aftermath of the spill.

Later, residents said they experienced memory problems, asthma, rashes, heart attacks, cancer and kidney illnesses that they blamed on exposure to the oil spill.

A final order approving a class action settlement on behalf of affected residents was given on May 8, according to civil rights attorney Denise Heberle in Ann Arbor, Michigan. 

Enbridge will make a $2.2 million payment to residents living within 1,000 feet of the river in the defined spill impact zone, according to the settlement. Of that, $250,000 will be divided among those who lived within 200 feet of the river and were worst affected by the spill, and $750 will be given to each resident located within 200 to 400 feet of the river.

Other residents living within 400 to 1000 feet of the river will receive pre-paid gift cards in amounts varying from $300 to $600 that can be used in local businesses, according to the settlement.

In addition to that compensation package, Enbridge will make additional payments from a $1.5 million fund for residents or businesses within 1,000 feet of the river who can demonstrate an out-of-pocket loss as a result of the spill. Those costs include meals, accommodation, relocation costs, home cleaning, fishing permits and other expenses, the document said.

Individual victims of the spill, including whistleblower John Bolenbaugh — who accused Enbridge of covering up the full extent of the damage during the initial clean up efforts on the Kalamazoo River — had filed and settled separate lawsuits against Enbridge.

Finally, as part of the class action lawsuit on behalf of local residents, Enbridge would complete a one-time well sampling in various places in the spill impact zone, the settlement said.

Not everyone was pleased with the compensation package, according to activists working with affected residents.

“Certainly out of the people I’ve spoken to it’s the same feeling — that this is kind of an insultingly low figure,” Wahmhoff said.

For the people who lived near the river during the spill who received a gift card in compensation, Wahmhoff said, “to those people, it’s a slap in the face.”

Pearson, the MN350 coordinator, agreed. He said for the people who have long-term health consequences, or simply had their lives disrupted in a significant way, “to see it reduced to such a token as a gift card” was disturbing.

The settlements came ahead of the fifth anniversary of the spill in July.

Local residents and activists from across the Midwest said they would gather for a "healing walk" along the affected area of the Kalamazoo River as part of a series of events to mark the anniversary from July 24 to 26.

“For anyone who wants to see the river, we’re working with Energy Action Coalition, MN350 and a bunch of other groups for the five-year anniversary,” Wahmhoff said. “We’re doing that with a lot of the impacted community to support them and let the people talk about their view of the river and what their lives have been like since the spill.”

With wire services

Find Al Jazeera America on your TV

Get email updates from Al Jazeera America

Sign up for our weekly newsletter

Get email updates from Al Jazeera America

Sign up for our weekly newsletter