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.
His East Texas property is one of more than 1,000 in the path of a new pipeline, the southern stretch of what is known as the Keystone XL system.
For years, Daniel has tried to avoid this fate — or at least figure out what risks will come with it. But it has been difficult for him to get straight answers about the tar sands oil the pipeline will carry, and what happens when it spills.
Enbridge and the EPA dispute Bolenbaugh’s interpretation of the role he’s played, but they both confirm that it has taken far longer to clean up the oil than expected. Early on, the EPA gave the company a couple of months. Two years and $800 million later, the cleanup is still going on. The cost eclipses every other onshore oil cleanup in U.S. history.
Hamilton says this tar sands oil sank to the river bottom because it’s heavy — heavier than almost anything that’s considered oil.
“It’s not quite solid, and it’s not quite liquid,” he says. “You could pick it up and shape it into a ball practically. Tarry is another way to think about it.”
Tar sands oil has to be diluted to make it liquid enough to flow through a pipeline. But once it’s back out in the environment, the chemicals that liquefied it evaporate. That leaves the heavy stuff behind.
Cleanup crews didn’t know what they were dealing with. They expected it to act like oil usually does and float on water. So they focused on vacuuming oil and skimming it from the surface.
But about a month into the cleanup, some fish researchers got a surprise. One of them jumped from a boat into the river. With each step he took, little globs of black oil popped up.
That kicked off a search for sunken oil.
“And everywhere they looked, they found it,” Hamilton recalls.
EPA’s Midwestern chief Susan Hedman says they had to develop new techniques to remove all of this submerged oil.
“The EPA staff that worked on this, that have 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,” Hedman says.
Scientists say they’re only beginning to study how tar sands behave after a spill, or even whether it might wear out a pipeline.
The EPA measured high levels of benzene in the air after the spill. Benzene is a chemical in petroleum, and in high enough doses, it can wreak havoc on the nervous system.
The company did buy about 150 houses along the route of the spill, but not BarlondSmith’s mobile home. Her husband says they felt abandoned by the company and the government.
“We were pretty much alone. They did not help us at all,” says Michelle’s husband, Tracy Smith.
David Daniel says he’s haunted by their stories and what he saw in Michigan.
“I learned that this is a whole new monster than what folks in Texas are used to dealing with,” Daniel says. “This is not a regular crude oil pipeline. This is something completely different. It’s not being treated differently.”
The Canadian pipeline company involved in the Michigan spill is not the same company David Daniel is dealing with; he’s dealing with TransCanada.
TransCanada’s representatives say their company is trying to learn as much as it can from the Kalamazoo spill, but they also stress that their Keystone pipelines should not be compared with the 40-year-old one that busted.
“The new pipelines we want to build are going to be the newest and safest pipelines ever built in the U.S.,” says Grady Semmens, a spokesman for TransCanada. “They’ll be a lot newer than that line that Enbridge operates. And we’re quite confident that any incident even approaching that scale will be very quickly identified and responded to by TransCanada.”
TransCanada studied the chance that its new Keystone pipeline system could rupture. It predicted, in a report to the U.S. State Department, that a big spill could come twice every 10 years somewhere along the length of the system, from Canada to the Gulf of Mexico.