It was one of those warm summer evenings in July 2010, on a Sunday around 6:00 pm, when a pipeline quietly ruptured and over 1 million gallons of diluted bitumen — aka tar sands or heavy crude oil — spilled into Talmadge Creek, a tributary of the Kalamazoo River in southwestern Michigan. It took 17 hours for Enbridge, the company responsible for the pipeline, to react — that’s three separate shifts of workers who failed to notice a massive problem. Meanwhile, despite multiple 911 calls by residents who reported unusual petroleum smells, local authorities were clueless; they hadn’t even known there was an oil pipeline in the area. It was not until a worker from a gas utility company noticed the spill and reported it that Enbridge did anything. Contaminating some 38 miles of the Kalamazoo River, this disaster resulted in the largest and most expensive inland oil spill in U.S. history (costing over $1 billion to clean up). Three years later and three days before the anniversary of the spill, three protesters peacefully engaging in non-violent direct action chained themselves to Enbridge machinery in hopes of halting progress of more installed pipelines (to the same line that ruptured earlier), an act of civil disobedience for which they were arrested as felons — a federal crime tantamount to murder or arson, even though all they were found guilty of was trespassing and obstruction. They were recently convicted and are currently being held in jail without bond until their sentencing on Wednesday, March 5th. They stand to be imprisoned for three years. They should be exonerated. You can help.
First, some history. Enbridge Energy Partners LLP is an energy delivery company from Alberta, Canada, the largest distributor of crude oil and natural gas in all of Canada. They don’t extract oil or refine it; all they do is distribute the stuff. According to the company’s own records (meaning this is going to be the very conservative estimate), they are responsible for no fewer than 804 spills from their pipelines between the years of 1999-2010, resulting in a minimum of 161,475 barrels of oil released into the environment, or 6.8 million gallons of oil (there are 42 gallons per one barrel). 804!?! Here is a map of their transnational operations:
Like many spills, the one in the Kalamazoo River was entirely avoidable. After a lengthy investigation following the spill by the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB), it was determined that Enbridge had known that the pipeline had been damaged five years before the accident in 2010. There were cracks, the cracks corroded, and inevitably a six-foot gash ruptured. After it had, workers at the time misread the alarms and thought the spill was a “column separation,” meaning that the pipes were not full, which led them tragically to pump more oil through the pipeline rather the shut the thing down awhile to assess the situation. Even though staff knew that something was askew, it was shirked off because it was at the end of a long shift and it was a Sunday night; to quote one worker to another, “Whatever, we’re going home and will be off for [a] few days.” Lucky them. A couple days later, 50 houses were evacuated under recommendation by the Calhoun County Health Department, due to high levels of benzene. Oh — and don’t drink the water either…duh.
How had Enbridge known about the already damaged pipeline five years earlier? Because the NTSB had previously investigated them for other, earlier infractions — finding some 15,000 defects in the pipeline — not because the company, left to its own devices, was accurately self-reporting. But what about the free market and the genius of unregulated capitalism?
When asked about the cleanup, Enbridge spokesperson Lorraine Grymala had this to say: “This is a serious incident for us. Regardless of the size of the spill, Enbridge takes this very seriously. At this point in time we are deploying all resources and calling in all hands on deck to respond to this.” Which is curious considering that (a) their estimate for total gallons of oil spilled was 300,000 lower than what the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) determined; and (b) the EPA has found still more than 200 acres worth of “hidden oil” that Enbridge had not even known about.
Incidentally, when it comes to cleaning up crude oil, thanks to so many spills America has lots of experience tidying its humanmade disasters: crude oil floats to the surface, and it can be reasonably culled and scooped out. Tar sand oil, coming from Alberta, Canada, is different: it’s very heavy and sinks to the bottom and is a hell of a lot more difficult to clean up. So difficult in fact that no one in Michigan knew how to do it, instead relying on — wait for it — the very same people, yes, who caused the spill to happen in the first place. Naturally.
If none of this rings a bell, it may be on account of the fact that only three months before this disaster the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico began. Remember that? Only three months earlier. Common sense would dictate that oil and gas industries might have had a teachable moment when one of their own was in the spotlight night after night trying and failing and trying and failing to shut off a valve spewing crude oil into the Gulf of Mexico. Bad press, that. But no — why bother? It costs too much. Really? A pipeline you already know is corrosive and compromised would cost too much to fix? Ironically, not spending money to fix the known problem led to the most expensive cleanup of an inland oil spill ever. Businesses might care to be regulated just to avoid that, much less the lawsuits and bad press.
But why learn anything from this? Six weeks later, 7,500 barrels (or 350,000 gallons) of oil spilled from a ruptured pipeline in nearby Romeoville, IL. Six weeks!
Two years after Kalamazoo, almost exactly to the day, another spill occurred in neighboring Wisconsin, this time “only” 50,000 gallons. Congressman Ed Markey of Massachusetts remarked, “Enbridge is fast becoming to the Midwest what BP was to the Gulf of Mexico, posing troubling risks to the environment. The company must be forthcoming about this entire incident, and deserves a top-to-bottom review of their safety culture, procedures and standards.” Well, don’t take Uncle Sam’s word for it; government is the problem, remember?
Yes, well, it’s actually been even worse in Canada, where since 1976 there have been 35 Enbridge spills in the province of Ontario alone:
For a full detail of Enbridge spills, see here.
The Kalamazoo River is still not totally clean; sections of it remain closed even today, almost four years later. What kind of jail time did anyone at Enbridge receive for that? For their unnecessary negligence? For the cost of property values, air and water pollution, evacuations, deaths to birds and fish and mammals? Nada.
So that’s the back story. It is this story, this legacy of lies and disregard for lives, that inspired three women to take action. They damaged nothing. They destroyed nothing. No one’s safety or well-being was at risk due to their actions. What they did was shine a light on a dark subject since nothing else was. When citizen complaints are made in writing or public hearing or newspaper editorials — i.e., the so-called “proper channels” of communication — and are promptly dismissed or condescended by corporate interests, what else can one do but bring attention through demonstration? Hope that things will get better on their own? That shareholders will do the right thing? That, because “everything happens for a reason,” justice will somehow magically prevail? “Power concedes nothing without a demand,” Frederick Douglas wrote. “It never did and it never will.” True that.
Others have written more extensively and eloquently about the three women protesters, much of which I will link to rather than recapitulate. But let me say this: the three women are Vicci Hamlin, a 60-year-old great-grandmother and domestic abuse counselor; Lisa Leggio, a single mother of two who was a tireless activist in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy; and Barbara Carter, a 22-year-old who lives three miles from a tar sands refinery and is an Occupy Detroit member who works with the homeless of that impoverished city. The three are part of a local activist group called Michigan Coalition Against Tar Sands or “MI-CATS” for short. Here is the link to the group’s website where you can read a consummate history of their actions and their goals. I encourage you to poke around a spell.
The MI-CATS 3 are very seriously looking at a two-year sentence at least. Coincidentally, it took that long for Enbridge to clean the Kalamazoo officially, albeit incompletely. How long will it take the ecology of southwestern Michigan to fully recover is a damning rhetorical question whose silence exceeds the length of pipeline from Alberta to Portland, ME, to the next solar system. In the newfangled names of “energy security” and age-old “job creation” we are killing our planet. To halt this, to bring attention to this tarred cortege, a grandmother and a woman barely old enough to order a beer at a bar, together with a colleague who has given more back to her local community in a year than most ever do in their lifetimes, are all looking at serving time in prison as long as drug dealers and thieves. Are they a risk to themselves? to the community? No, but you know who the hell is? The higher-ups at Enbridge who, as deliverers of oil, do act as drug dealers and thieves of private property by way of eminent domain; they are the criminals who as a spectacularly disastrous history has shown are existential threats to the community — to the Great Lakes at large — through their unconscionable incompetence and dereliction of protocol, their mismanagement of machinery and disregard for public welfare. Lock those bastards up, for God’s sake! But no, they have the law on their side — because they have their money in the pockets of lawmakers.
What the fuck kind of insane, upside-down world do we live in where someone’s grandma is a convicted felon for trespassing a mine site that has already ruined her backyard? What the fuck kind of insane, upside-down world do we live in where a company can destroy a landscape after it had already been reported to be at risk of doing so and yet did nothing to prevent it, and all they have to do is cut a check, wash their hands of it and walk away, and somehow not receive a single minute behind bars? How is that not criminal negligence?
Hell yes, I’m pissed. Which is why I have spent the last 7 hours of my little life writing this little scribble. There is a petition going around that I am asking you to sign. It goes like this: committing an act of civil disobedience and receiving upwards to three years jail time is unreasonable and excessive; the court has the power and prudence to exercise lenience. The petition has collected over 60,000 signatures, but the goal is to reach 75,000 by the court sentencing next Wednesday, March 5, 2014. In turn, they will be hand-delivered to the judge, the honorable William E. Collette, and the Ingham County Prosecutor Stuart J. Dunnings III. Please take a minute to read and sign the petition. Additionally, if you would like to send a message to any or all of the MI-CAT 3, use this link for info on how to do so. Or send an index card (plain 4×6 — that’s all that the jail will accept) addressed to Vickie Hamlin (139214)*, or Lisa Leggio, or Barbara Carter at 640 N. Cedar Street, Mason, MI 48854. All postcards must be sent individually; anything sent in bulk will be returned to the sender. And remember that postal rates recently rose to 34 cents for a postcard, so if you have old stamps, hurry on down to your local post office and purchase a couple 1-cent stamps before you send anything.
(* Note: if you write to Vicci, keep in mind that the real spelling of her name is Vicci, but the prison somehow renamed her “Vickie” and apparently won’t deliver mail to her if it’s addressed to her real name. Cute, I know.)
Or if you really want to make a point, since the sentencing day falls on Ash Wednesday next week, why not smudge your forehead with a ‘3’ or some oily or tarred mark? Friends, family, and coworkers might ask “I didn’t know you were religious” — to which you can then explain what you’re doing and bring more attention to the matter.
As Lisa Leggio herself bravely stated: “Don’t doubt for one second the ripple effect of what you do. If you throw one little stone, it creates a ripple. Do not forget that.” That’s what this is right now, you reading this, signing the petition, sending it to others that they do so as well, and looking into tar sands and pipelines. Nationally, the Keystone XL pipeline is as hotly contested an issue as any right now. Don’t let namby-pamby NIMBYism distort the perspective: the effects of climate change affect everyone everywhere. Eminent domain is imminent danger.
After the MI-CAT 3 verdict Enbridge offered this statement: “Safety is always the top priority on worksites, and it’s important that the public share this priority for their own safety and for the safety of our crews and contractors. We hope this decision will serve to deter others from creating unsafe situations in the future.” The hypocrisy speaks for itself. But contrast that with what the chair of the National Transportation and Safety Board, Deborah Hersman, concluded in the 2012 investigation of the Kalamazoo River disaster: “[T]his accident was the result of multiple mistakes and missteps made by Enbridge. But, there is also regulatory culpability. Delegating too much authority to the regulated to assess their own system risks and correct them is tantamount to the fox guarding the henhouse. Regulators need regulations and practices with teeth – and the resources to enable them to take corrective action before a spill. Not just after.” And here’s where it gets beautiful: “Safety is a commitment. It is a requirement. It must be a way of doing business and not just a slogan. If companies can commit to safety with the same vigor that they pursue profits, then we will see integrity management programs with real integrity.” Amen.
Enbridge is a bunch of cowards hiding behind the dirty skirts and stuffy suits of attorneys and shareholders. It takes courage and conviction to lock yourself up and then get locked behind bars. These women have conviction, but they’re not convicts. Free the felines!