Common Sense Canadian

Enbridge let off the hook in paltry Kalamazoo oil spill settlement

PostedJune 23, 2015 by in International
OIl lingering on the Kalamazoo River long after Enbridge's 2010 spill (Jason W Lacey/Flickr)

OIl lingering on the Kalamazoo River long after Enbridge’s 2010 spill (Jason W Lacey/Flickr)

Read this May 13 story by Nancy Kaffer in the Detroit Free Press on the paltry settlement between Enbridge and the State of Michigan for the company’s 2010 oil spill, the effects of which linger in the river to this day.

What kind of message does a state settlement with Enbridge send?

Enbridge Energy Partners, a Canadian oil company, is responsible for a 2010 oil spill that dealt perhaps irreparable environmental damage to the Kalamazoo River and Talmadge Creek. There’s still oil in the river, work is ongoing, and will be for years.

So let’s do the math: More than 800,000 gallons of oil. More than $1 billion in clean-up and settlement costs. Close to five years of work. And now, $75 million paid to the State of Michigan in a consent order, most reimbursment for money already spent. (Read: Costs already included in that “more than $1 billion.”) Just $5 million is a “mitigation payment.”

Considering the damage done, says Noah Hall, a professor of environmental law at Wayne State University, it’s not a lot of money.

James Clift, policy director for the Michigan Environmental Council, agrees.

“I look at the extent at the damage there,” he said. “They didn’t get to a lot of the oil, they couldn’t get to a lot of the oil. Part of the settlement is reimbursing the state for what it had spent up till now. It’s automatic, and comes off the top. Next, the natural resource damages they should have to pay a penalty for, the wildlife harmed or killed. That’s where I think it’s a little low.”

Environmental law is based on something called “strict liability,” Hall says: “You make a mess, you clean it up. It doesn’t matter if it’s your fault, it doesn’t matter if it’s not your fault. … But a lot of the time, people make a mess not simply by accident, but because their behavior is far worse than the norm. That’s Enbridge.”

A National Transportation Safety Board report, issued in 2012, found that Enbridge knew its Kalamazoo pipeline had cracks and corrosion. For five years. When the spill started, Enbridge operators restarted the pipeline repeatedly, over a 17-hour period, despite alarms warning that a break had occurred. Employees, apparently, believed the alarms were caused by a vapor bubble rather than a pipeline rupture. The NTSB found that more than 80% of the oil spilled after the initial alarm.



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