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Respirator-clad oil spill responders monitor air within 100 yards of where an Enbridge pipeline burst on July 25, 2010. Cleanup is scheduled to continue into 2014 and has cost more than $1 billion. (U.S. Environmental Protection Agency)

Spill response ‘inadequate’ for tar sands crude on Great Lakes

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Kate Golden

Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism

Oil that sinks is hard to clean up.

That was the big lesson after energy giant Enbridge’s pipeline burst, causing oil to flow into Michigan’s Kalamazoo River in 2010, some 75 miles from where it empties into Lake Michigan. After more than three years and $1 billion, oil remains in the river.

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So a refinery’s proposal to ship heavy crude oil from Superior across the Great Lakes has emergency responders gearing up to bolster current oil spill response plans.

The gaps are substantial, according to a June 2013 report from the U.S. Coast Guard’s research and development division, which characterized cleanup methods as “inadequate.”

Additionally, preparations by government response teams are lacking.

“There is work to be done on that front,” said Jerry Popiel of the U.S. Coast Guard, who co-chairs Regional Response Team 5, a six-state, multi-agency group that responds to Midwestern spills.

Heavy oil shipping will be one of the main topics at the team’s next meeting, in April, Popiel said.

Among the presenters may be the Alliance for the Great Lakes, a Chicago-based nonprofit that published a report in October faulting the region’s preparedness to ship oil from the Alberta tar sands.

Alliance president and chief executive officer Joel Brammeier said his group is not advocating a ban on tar sands shipping, given the oil’s inevitable push eastward.

“There is no question that the spill response regimen generally has holes in it,” he said.

Calumet Specialty Products Partners L.P., which owns a refinery in Superior, is exploring using barges to transport oil from the booming Bakken shale of North Dakota or from the tar sands fields of Alberta, Canada.

Petroleum is among the top products shipped on the Great Lakes, though little of it has been crude oil. In 2011, more than 3.9 million tons of petroleum products, much of it fuel oil and gasoline, were shipped.

Tar sands crude is different. It is mixed with clay, sand and other hydrocarbons and is “extremely difficult, potentially even impossible, to completely remove from the water after a spill,” the Alliance report stated.

Ready or not?

Tom Crane, deputy director of the Great Lakes Commission, a coalition of eight states and two Canadian provinces, sees the advent of heavy oil as a new concern on top of already known deficiencies in spill response plans, including preparation for oil spills in icy conditions.

There are signs of a lack of readiness for freshwater spills. A Coast Guard spill website was down last week and funding dried up years ago for a Freshwater Spills Information Clearinghouse. In 2012, the EPA cancelled a conference on spills and none has been held since.

Funding for training and equipment is also lacking, Crane said.

“One of the biggest challenges is for all levels of government to support these programs financially, which they’re not doing,” he said.

Despite a need for improvements, Popiel said much of the plan is already in place — the teams laid out, the protocols set — and that “wouldn’t change whether it floats or sinks.”

“I wouldn’t go so far as to say we’re not ready,” he said.

The EPA declined to provide anyone to interview but said in an e-mail response that the agency has effective response strategies in place.

Dismissed, not dead

Indianapolis-based Calumet’s specific plan is unknown. But the company said it is “currently evaluating a number of potential options” for shipping crude oil from northern production fields eastward to refineries.

Calumet, or whoever the shipper is, would have to demonstrate its readiness for a spill to the Coast Guard. The agency inspects vessels and approves their response plans, and would also evaluate spill prevention and response plans for any shoreline tanks or harbor activities.

Calumet spokesman Noel Ryan said the company is committed to safe shipping.

“Notably, petroleum products have been shipped on the Great Lakes for many years; nevertheless, we understand and fully appreciate the importance of building and maintaining a loading dock that would help safely facilitate the shipment of crude oil over Lake Superior,” he said.

Spill numbers decrease

Petroleum spills have decreased in frequency and volume over the past two decades on the Great Lakes, according to Coast Guard data used by the commission and the Alliance.

Most spills were small; the 50 spills that happened from 2008 to 2012 averaged about 10 gallons. The average for the previous five years was about 466 gallons, if one major spill is excluded.

In that 2005 exception, 84,000 gallons of oil was released into the Chicago Sanitary and Ship Canal when a tank barge exploded.

Oil market heats up

The oil boom has prompted the Great Lakes Commission to study its potential environmental impacts, according to commission spokeswoman Christine Manninen.

“There’s been a lot of concern among members of the Great Lakes Commission … about the increased movement of crude oil across the region,” she said. “A lot of people don’t even realize what substances are being transported through their communities,” Manninen said.

Safest mode?

Which mode is the safest is still unclear, said Andrew Slade, northeast Minnesota program coordinator for the Minnesota Environmental Partnership, a coalition of environmental groups.

Some say it may be shipping. Vessel transportation is “better understood and more heavily regulated,” Crane said, thanks to changes after the 1989 Exxon Valdez spill in Alaska

But no transport mode is perfectly safe, and more shipping volume would obviously translate to more shipping risk, sources agreed.

“Whether it comes by rail or by pipeline or by vessel, now is the time to weigh in on the pros and cons of those,” the Alliance’s Brammeier said, “or the market will make that choice for us.”

This story is part of Water Watch Wisconsin, a project examining water quantity and quality issues across the state. The nonprofit Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism (www.WisconsinWatch.org) collaborates with Wisconsin Public Radio, Wisconsin Public Television, other news media and the UW-Madison School of Journalism and Mass Communication.

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