Life on the River: Suing & Settling With Enbridge (Part 3)

  • Wayne and Sue Groth used to live near Talmadge Creek, where the oil spill occurred last summer. They eventually sold their home to the energy company, Enbridge. (Photo by Steve Carmody)

A year ago… a ruptured pipeline spewed more than 840,000 gallons of tar sands oil into the Kalamazoo River.

The crude oil had a big environmental impact. It also affected the lives of thousands of people living in the spill zone. The pipeline’s owners have spent the past year reimbursing many of them for their losses. Steve Carmody has the final part of our series:

Wayne Groth says the odor of the oil was overpowering the first night. Talmadge Creek runs right past the home he and his wife Sue lived in for 22 years. The oil flowed down Talmadge Creek into the Kalamazoo River.

Wayne Groth says it wasn’t long after the spill that clipboard carrying employees of Enbridge started walking through his neighborhood, promising to clean up oil. He says they made another promise too…

“They said if you’re still not happy with the job… you could sell your property to them. They would buy it from us.”

Wayne Groth says he and his wife initially were only half interested in Enbridge’s offer to buy their home. He says they were satisfied with the cleanup, but…

“They kept asking ‘Do you want us to do an appraisal on your property?’ I kept telling them no. But my accountant is the one who told me ‘you really should have them do that and take a look at the opportunities that are out there to buy another piece of real estate. It’s a buyer’s market now.’”


It’s definitely been a buyers’ market for Enbridge. Eventually, Enbridge bought the Groths’ home… and has bought or is buying another 137 homes in the spill zone.

Enbridge has not only been buying homes. It’s also been settling claims with hundreds of people affected by the spill in other ways.

Jason Manshum is an Enbridge spokesman. He says the pace of damages claims against Enbridge that was once a torrent has slowed to a trickle.

“We’re not seeing the high volume of claims that we were 10 months ago, or even six months ago, that number has decreased the further away from the incident last summer. So in that regard, it’s winding down.”

Enbridge has settled more than 2300 damage claims.

But not everyone is happy with Enbridge’s efforts.

Attorney Bill Mayhall represents 16 families that are suing Enbridge. Mayhall says overall, Enbridge has in many instances treated people fairly and compensated them well. But he does have a problem with the damage claim system that the pipeline company set up after the spill. Under the system, people made their damage claims directly to Enbridge.

“In other words, Enbridge was judge and jury as to whether you had a legitimate claim or not. As opposed to having a neutral third party that didn’t have conflict of interest making those decisions.”

Mayhall says Enbridge was quick to compensate for property damage… but has resisted paying damages for health related claims. An Enbridge spokesman insists the company has settled some claims related to health complaints.

Mayhall says his clients will be deposed this week by Enbridge attorneys. He says unless a settlement can be reached in the next few months, their cases may end up going to court… a process that may take years.

But for others affected by the spill, their lives have moved on.

(sound of birds chirping)

“It’s just wild grasses and wildflowers growing out there.”

Wayne Groth is standing on the deck overlooking the backyard of his new home south of Battle Creek. He and his wife Sue moved late in the spring.

It’s a lovely home, with only one possible problem.

“We’ve got another little creek running by our house and we discovered after we bought this place there’s another pipeline real close by. I thought that was a little ironic.”

But Wayne and Sue Groth say they’re not worried another pipeline breach could force them out of their home again.

For the Environment Report, I’m Steve Carmody.

Life on the River: Oil & Wildlife (Part 2)

  • A volunteer prepares to clean oil from the feathers of a heavily-oiled Canada goose at the Wildlife Rehabilitation Center in Marshall, Michigan in 2010. (Photo courtesy of the EPA)

It was the largest inland oil spill in Midwest history… but we still don’t know exactly what it will mean for life around the river.

This is the Environment Report. I’m Rebecca Williams.

One year ago, a pipeline owned by Enbridge Energy broke. More than 840-thousand gallons of tar sands oil polluted Talmadge Creek and the Kalamazoo River.

People who were there say the river ran black. Turtles, and muskrats and Great blue herons were covered in oil. It’s not clear what all this will mean for the river and the wildlife that depends on it.

“It’s really a big unknown. We don’t have much experience with oil spills in freshwater rivers in general.”

Stephen Hamilton is a professor at Michigan State University.

“This new kind of crude, the tar sands crude oil, with its different chemistry, all makes this a learning experience for everybody involved.”

Tar sands oil is very thick, and it has to be diluted in order to move through pipelines. We’ve previously reported that federal officials say the nature of this oil has made the cleanup more difficult. In fact, the cleanup has lasted longer than many people expected. The Environmental Protection Agency says there are still significant amounts of submerged oil along 35 miles of the Kalamazoo River.

Stephen Hamilton says no one knows what the long term effects of the oil spill will be.

“We suspect there were very large impacts on the base of the food chain which will have ripple effects up the food chain.”


He says research on marine mammals and fish after oil spills shows there can be organ damage and negative effects on reproduction. But he says there hasn’t been much research on freshwater oil spills.

Researchers at Michigan State University and Western Michigan University have studies underway.

And there are six government agencies and two tribes collecting data on the river. They’re working on something called the Natural Resource Damage Assessment. That’s a report that’ll try to quantify the impact of the oil spill on wildlife and on the river ecosystem.

Enbridge is also involved with this damage assessment.

Stephanie Millsap is with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. She says her agency and the others involved – they’re called trustees – are working with the oil company.

“Which means that the trustees and Enbridge jointly develop the study plans and jointly go out and collect the data together. That provides the basis so both Enbridge and trustees are confident in how the data was collected.”

Millsap says Enbridge will be held accountable for the costs of the damage assessment. And the company will have to pay for habitat restoration and compensate the public for loss of recreation on the river.

She says so far, their studies have found fish are less abundant in Talmadge Creek and several places in the Kalamazoo River. And they’ve found a drastic reduction in some species of insects that fish and birds rely on for food.

“It’s going to be a number of years before we fully understand what those impacts have been to the environment and to wildlife.”

Enbridge officials say the company is committed to cleaning up the oil and restoring the area to the way it was before the spill. But both the company and the EPA admit it’ll be impossible to clean up every last drop of oil.

Jason Manshum is an Enbridge spokesperson. He says right now, they’re focusing on meeting the EPA’s deadlines for cleanup.

“If there’s ever a time when we need to come back, even in an isolated area, we’ll do that. So the testing and monitoring of the watershed will go on for many years.”

But he could not say who would be responsible for doing that testing… or whether Enbridge would be liable for problems that might turn up years down the road.

Tomorrow, we’ll take a look at how well Enbridge officials have kept their promise to compensate residents for damages.

That’s the Environment Report. I’m Rebecca Williams.

Life on the River (Part 1)

  • Last July, a pipeline owned by Enbridge Energy burst, spilling more than 843,000 gallons of oil from the Alberta tar sands into Talmadge Creek and the Kalamazoo River. This photo was taken on July 19, 2011 - oil still remains in the creek and the river. (Photo by Lindsey Smith)

Workers are still trying to clean up thick tar sands oil that’s settled at the bottom of the Kalamazoo River. It’s been one year since more than 840-thousand gallons leaked from a broken pipeline owned by Enbridge Energy. Lindsey Smith reports life for those living near the accident site has not returned to normal yet:

“See those clumpies?”

Deb Miller points out black goopy masses as big as my fist floating on the Kalamazoo River. We’re behind Miller’s Carpet store in the village of Ceresco – 6 miles downstream from where the pipe broke.

Most of the oil that’s left is submerged below the water. There are around 200 acres that state regulators still classify as heavily contaminated. This is one of the worst.

Here, I can still see oil clumps everywhere – in the water, on the banks, on strips of bright orange boom. Workers in neon vests dot the river banks. I pick up a faint smell – sort of like nail polish remover.

Miller says she certainly doesn’t sit out and enjoy the view anymore. She’s used to waking up to the sound of air boats and helicopters. She’s still drinking bottled water because she’s worried her well could become contaminated.
Miller’s learned more than she’s ever cared to know about pipelines and wishes could move away from her nightmare.

“The home that we live in was my husband’s family home. But if it was up to me – I would’ve been gone the week of the spill.”

Many have left. Miller says that’s changed her neighborhood forever.
“ I don’t blame anyone for getting out. There’s just too much unknown. There’s just too much unknown.”


(sound of knocking on doors)

I tried talking to people really close to the spill site. Door after door – no one answers. Some of the homes are obviously empty. Three people answered the door but refused to talk to me.

A big black SUV pulls up as I’m walking back to my car. Self-described outdoorsman Craig Ritter jumps out and introduces himself. He’s from Jackson. He’s been kayaking this section of the Kalamazoo River for years. He says the river looked like “black death” the day after the spill happened.

“The river was black. You couldn’t even hear the water. The water going over the rocks didn’t sound like water going over the rocks. It almost sounded like a kid sucking on a super thick milkshake I mean it was just (makes milkshake noises).”

We go behind an abandoned house with a porta-john for workers parked in the driveway. Ritter says the river looks a lot better on the surface. He pokes a stick into the shallow water. A blue oil sheen bubbles up along with some black-tar-like substance.

“That horrible or what? Want to go for a swim?”

No one has been able to fish or swim in this part of the river for a year. Officials hope to open part of the river to recreation by the end of next month.
Ritter looks down, wipes the sweat from his forehead and shakes his head.

“Unfortunately I don’t think that life on the river is going to be the same.”

(sound of fountain)

In downtown Marshall I meet Renold Stone – he goes by Big Rey. He and his son Little Rey cool off in the shade near a city fountain. Big Rey tells me the oil spill didn’t change his life too much. His son chimes in though, reminds his dad they haven’t gone fishing at all this year.

“Actually they float, they get their floaties on, they float inside the river with their fishing poles and fish. Now they messed that up, can’t do that no more. “

Enbridge promises they’re here until the spill site is clean.

But Big Rey is cynical. He thinks Enbridge is going to do whatever it has to do to get by and that’s it. So he’s not too sure he’ll let his son go swimming or fishing in the river anytime soon.

For The Environment Report, I’m Lindsey Smith.