My Father's Lessons on Life and Tar Sands Spills

By Sarah Curran

When I was growing up, my father, in his boundless wisdom, often told me, "The best kind of lesson to learn is one you don't have to learn the hard way for yourself." I was determined to learn everything for myself, and it took me a long time to learn that my father was right.

It's a lesson our state needs to learn — and quickly — from the nation's largest oil pipeline disaster, which began three years ago this week and is still unfolding today.

On July 25, 2010, a pipeline carrying tar sands ruptured in Marshall, Michigan, which is about 60 miles west of Ann Arbor.

The oil ruptured in a wetland, then flowed down two miles of Talmadge Creek, and eventually contaminated a 35-mile stretch of the Kalamazoo River. Canadian oil giant Enbridge, the pipeline operator, ignored numerous alarms over 17 hours, even restarting the flow of tar sands through the pipeline multiple times. As a result, more than one million gallons of tar sands spilled into the river.

Marshall, a town of about 7,400, was immediately thrown into turmoil. Shortly after the spill, the Calhoun County Public Health Department issued a voluntary evacuation notice to about 50 houses based on the level of benzene in the air. Benzene is a particular health concern, because it can cause health effects at low concentrations and over short periods of time. It is a known human carcinogen. Some families evacuated, and those that couldn't feared for their health.

Trucks of workers participating in the emergency response team invaded the small town, aiming to clean up the oil before too much damage could be done. The emergency response team was surprised that the oil was more difficult to clean up that they had expected. This is because tar sands doesn't behave the same way that conventional oil does, and Enbridge failed to tell government officials or anyone on the response team that the pipeline was carrying tar sands. Instead of floating on the water, tar sands tends to sink in water, leaving the tools used to clean up oil spills practically useless.

The EPA has supervised the cleanup of nearly 8,400 spills since 1970, but agency officials said the Marshall spill cleanup was unlike anything they'd ever faced and that they were "writing the playbook" on how to deal with submerged oil.

In some ways, the people of Michigan were lucky. The spill did not reach Lake Michigan, a drinking water supply for millions of Americans. The oil spill occurred in an area with a small population. There were no deaths in the immediate aftermath of the spill.

There still was an incredible amount of damage done to the people, environment and economy of Marshall. Local businesses closed, housing prices plummeted, 150 families relocated and 35 miles of the Kalamazoo River remain permanently polluted.

In remembering the Kalamazoo spill, we should sympathize with those affected, but we must also realize that they could just as easily be us. What happened in Marshall could happen in Windham, in South Portland, in Casco or in Westbrook.

That's because ExxonMobil wants to reverse the aging Portland-Montreal Pipe Line to carry tar sands oil through Maine. The pipeline passes through 40 miles of the Sebago Lake watershed, which provides drinking water for 200,000 Mainers. What the people of Michigan narrowly avoided could easily become a reality in Maine if a tar sands spill were to occur here.

We cannot risk Sebago Lake, our drinking water or our tourism-based economy for the sake of oil company profits. Mainers must take action to stop oil companies from bullying communities, like South Portland, to obtain the needed permits, and we must come together to protect our state.

My father has long told me that hindsight is 20-20. Looking back three years later, we know what went wrong in Michigan, but Mainers haven't yet found the foresight to realize that things in Maine could turn out the same way — or even worse.

We must learn from the mistakes in Michigan before it's too late. Senator Collins should join the rest of the Maine Congressional delegation to insist that the federal government require an environmental and safety review of any tar sands project through our great state.

Sarah Curran is an Environment Maine summer intern and sophomore at Cornell University.