An Enbridge Oil Spill on My Grandparents’ Farm

The tainted legacy of Line 6B's spill in the Kalamazoo River watershed 10 years ago

Photo: The clean up on the Zinn family farm in Marshall, Michigan, after Enbridge’s Line 6B failed a decade ago on July 25, 2010, eventually contaminating nearly 40 miles of the Kalamazoo River and its watershed with a million gallons of tar sands oil, sickening more than 300 people, permanently driving more than 150 people from their homes and properties, and destroying wildlife and habitat.

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By Frank D. Zinn

Ten years ago, my uncle answered an early morning phone call. He lives in Ann Arbor, about 60 miles east of Marshall, the location of the Zinn family farm. The call was from a Marshall neighbor who reported that something was happening on the Zinn property — there was a gas or oil leak, and things looked and smelled really bad.

The Zinn farm in 2008 before the Enbridge Line 6B oil spill.

My aunt and cousin drove to the farm the next day to check things out. Things did indeed look and smell bad — there was a thick layer of oil sludge on the surface of Talmadge Creek, a tributary of the Kalamazoo River, which runs across the north end of the property. At that point it was clear that a pipeline had ruptured — but the extent of the spill and damage was not yet known.

Several days later, I joined my uncle and father to visit the property again. We met with a lawyer who represented Enbridge, the owner-operator of the Line 6B pipeline. We learned that the rupture occurred a few yards from our property line and that Enbridge was starting the process of cleaning it up and would therefore require access to our property. The lawyer told us that things were not as bad as they looked, and that Enbridge had everything under control. He said “a year from now, you won’t even know this happened” and reassured us that Enbridge would restore the land to be better than it was before the spill.

The 6-foot gash on Enbridge Line 6B that gushed more than 1 million gallons of heavy tar sands oil into the Kalamazoo River watershed when it failed on July 25, 2010.

The scene was a difficult one for my family. The farm had been in the family since about 1930 when my great-grandfather bought part of the property. My grandparents moved their young family there in 1947, so it was where my father and his siblings spent much of their childhoods. After my grandfather died in 1996, my aunt and uncle restored the 440-acre property to indigenous prairie to honor the legacy of his environmentally minded parents. During the two years before the spill, my family collaborated with a Chicago-based developer to design an eco-friendly project for the farm — one that combined a vineyard and winery with housing. We had planned to launch the project in the fall.

At the start of the clean-up process, my family gave Enbridge the benefit of the doubt and remained hopeful that we could proceed with our plans. However, after a few weeks it became clear that the extent of the damage was such that the eco-development project would no longer be feasible. We learned, for example, that Enbridge was immediately notified by its pressure sensors that there was a problem, but did not shut the line down for 17 hours, allowing approximately one million gallons of oil to escape (ignoring the company’s much-touted “policy” that a pipeline would be shut down within 10 minutes if the cause of an alarm could not be determined).

Cleanup of the Enbridge Line 6B oil spill on the Zinn farm, 2010

Moreover, the cleanup was not well designed or implemented, and, as a consequence, nine months into the process, Enbridge was ordered by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to go back and do it again. Enbridge had failed to account for the fact that the heavy, tar sands crude oil broke down to be heavier than water, and therefore could not be simply skimmed off the surface of the water. At the end of the cleanup, the EPA and Enbridge admitted that at least 5% (about 50,000 gallons) would never be recovered.

After many months of getting little or no response from Enbridge to our questions about the extent of contamination and their plans to restore the property, my family felt it had no other option but to file a lawsuit. After a difficult and painful legal process, we finally settled with Enbridge. Enbridge bought the farm. The project we designed to honor my grandparents would not be built.

Cleanup of the Enbridge Line 6B oil spill on the Zinn farm, 2010

When Lakehead Pipeline Co. (Enbridge’s Line 6B predecessor) came to my grandfather in 1969 and offered to purchase an easement under the farm, he refused, citing his concerns about the environmental impact a spill would have. Lakehead took my grandfather to court in order to obtain the easement, and a Lakehead engineer testified under oath to a judge that a significant spill could never occur because three separate monitoring devices would immediately shut down the pumping station in the event of a rupture. Lakehead was awarded the easement on the basis of that testimony.

Enbridge acknowledges that its pipelines had 610 spills that released more than 5.5 million gallons of crude oil into the environment between 1999 and 2008. Enbridge’s inspections of Line 6B identified 140 instances of cracks/corrosion in 2007, and an additional 250 instances in 2009 — only 61 of these were repaired.

On July 15, 2010, just 10 days before Enbridge Line 6B ruptured, Enbridge’s vice president of U.S. operations for Enbridge Liquid Pipelines, Richard Adams, testified before the U.S. House of Representatives Subcommittee on Railroads, Pipelines, and Hazardous Materials. The focus of the hearing was on Enbridge’s Pipeline Integrity Management. In his testimony, Adams lauded the Enbridge Integrity Management Program and, under questioning, testified that the detection of large leaks in Enbridge pipelines were “almost instantaneous” by Enbridge control center personnel and that, if there was any uncertainty, they would shut down the pipeline.

So, the promises made to my family by the Enbridge lawyer a few days after the spill were not kept. The impacts of the spill on the farm are still evident, and the land is not better than it was before the spill. The statement made by the Lakehead engineer in 1969 was not true. Nor was the testimony made to the U.S. House of Representatives by an Enbridge vice president a few days before the spill.

Furthermore, it is clear that the pipeline regulation is not adequate. While the largest fine in history was levied against the company after a blistering accident report was issued by the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) in 2012, Enbridge looks to be back to business as usual (here’s a link to the NTSB report).  Many of the claims made by Enbridge about its Line 5 pipeline that runs through the Straits of Mackinac sound eerily similar to the claims it made about Line 6B before the spill a decade ago.

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The tainted legacy of Line 6B's spill in the Kalamazoo River watershed 10 years ago