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Kalamazoo Pipeline Disaster Offers a Cautionary Tale for Texas

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Michelle Barlond-Smith came home late one night two years ago after her mother had suffered a massive heart attack. She smelled something in the air and thought her neighbor had a gas leak again.

Next morning, she woke up to find her town, Battle Creek, Michigan in the midst of a crisis. There was an oil spill in the Kalamazoo River—just six miles from her house. Barlond-Smith said the towns closest to the 40-mile river reeked of gas and oil for days.

“You get this headache,” she said. “I can’t explain it to most people, it’s right through the eyes and you live with it constantly. You are dizzy, you are nauseous.”

Two years later, the Kalamazoo River remains the site of one of the most devastating domestic spills in history. Last Thursday, officials opened the river to the public but the cleanup crew will remain for an unknown period of time.

Barlond-Smith said she walked away from her house and now lives in Jackson, Michigan. Her story, she said, is a cautionary tale for Texans.

Today she testified in front of the House Energy Resource Committee on the dangers that the Keystone XL pipeline and other pipelines pose to people and the environment.

Although the Keystone XL—a project initiated by TransCanada, a Canadian company— President Barack Obama denied the permit earlier this year, the project is far from dead. Just today the Army Corps of Engineers approved a 115-mile segment of the pipeline along the Texas coast. Once fully constructed, the Texas portion would stretch from Port Arthur to Oklahoma and would cross several Texas aquifers.

The pipelines will be used to transport heavy tar sands, a particularly corrosive substance. Chris Wilson, a representative of Public Citizen, told the committee that the tar sands oil poses a high risk for leaks.

Just last week, a Canadian pipeline company Enbridge—responsible for the Kalamazoo spill— suffered another leak in Alberta, Canada.

The pipes aren’t suitable for transporting diluted bitumen—a thick substance mixed with other hazardous chemicals to make it flow better through pipelines­­, Wilson said.

Enbridge has also put another existing pipeline into play, capable of carrying Canadian tar sands. Called Seaway, the 36-year-old pipeline runs from Cushing, Oklahoma to refineries in the Houston area. Enbridge is working on increasing the capacity of the pipeline from 150,000 barrels per day to 400,000 by early next year.

“It crosses major water bodies that feed water to Dallas, Forth Worth, and Bryan,” Wilson said. “That’s our big concern.”

Being prepared for an oil spill is extremely important, Barlond-Smith said, and high-risk pipelines in particular need vigorous regulation and new standards.

A pipeline breach “completely destroys your community, the health of people who are exposed and water,” she said. “It’s insane how much damage it can do.”

The Kalamazoo spill has cost $720 million and 23 months to clean up. The river is still contaminated.

“My concern is that I don’t want Texas to go through what Michigan went through,” Michelle said as she showed pictures of the damage in the Kalamazoo River area.

“It doesn’t matter what the company is—what matters is what’s going through these pipelines,” she said.