Tour gives stakeholders view of Enbridge oil clean-up in Michigan

A Kitimat resident was among the dozen or so people who were invited on a tour of clean-up efforts in Michigan by Enbridge.

An Enbridge-sponsored tour of the Kalamazoo River area and Marshall, Michigan region have local community stakeholders impressed with the company’s openness.

On an invite from the company, about a dozen people from communities from Prince George to Kitimat toured the site and region of a 2010 major oil spill, when an Enbridge line failed, spilling about 877,000 gallons into Talmadge Creek, which feeds into the Kalamazoo.

“We’ve had a lot of questions about what happened in Marshall three years ago and we’ve been trying to answer the questions but we felt that if we were able to take them out to Marshall so they could see for themselves, perhaps some of their questions could be answered with a tour of the clean-up,” explained Michele Perret, Northern Gateway’s Community and Municipal Relations Manager.

The tour, which she led, included travel by bus through the area, and on boats on the water itself.

It wasn’t only company representatives either. Marshall’s city manager, and a representative from the Calhoun County Conservation District also answered questions, and nearby residents were also included in the fact-finding mission.

“There were a lot of questions. I think that was really positive, that people weren’t shy to ask questions,” said Perret. “They asked questions about everything.”

She said the answers showed that the clean-up has been successful. The woman from the Conservation District even told the visitors that health effects from the spill have been nil.

“She said ‘I’ve had more health issues with a bridal party and a bad cake.’” said Perret.

The representative from Kitimat, fishing guide and Kitimat Chamber of Commerce director Tracey Hittel, said that the tour was very informative.

“I tried to get as much input from the public as possible on the whole situation,” he said. “They seem to be quite happy with what Enbridge has done with the clean-up.”

From what he gathered from Marshall city officials,  they learned a lot about emergency response and about suddenly housing and feeding thousands of people at once, people who came as a result of the spill.

The company itself was not well-known to people in the area before the spill. Some may not have even quite realized an oil pipeline was going through the area, he said.

“The townspeople said they didn’t even know who Enbridge was, and that pipeline’s been in the ground there since ‘67,” he said “It was in the ground for so many years just flowing oil underneath their town and not knowing until unfortunately the line let go.”

But the clean-up effort has paid off and he said people on his tour saw little more than ‘pepper flakes’ of oil in the water.

“From what we saw, you would never know there was a spill there,” he said. “It was quite amazing you could clean up the oil from what the pictures looked like originally and what they’ve done now.”

Hittel said that the portrayal of the spill on television media seemed skewed from what actually happened.

“What the media put out was nowhere near what really happened,” he said.

But all of this is not meant to express that Hittel himself supports the proposed Northern Gateway pipeline from Alberta to Kitimat.

For example he said the Kitimat River just wouldn’t handle an oil spill.

“If we had an oil spill on the Kitimat River, it would be disastrous…We just couldn’t have one.”

The Kalamazoo River for instance is not as heavily relied on for fishing, drinking water does not come from it and it’s small.

“We wouldn’t even consider it a river, it’s so small,” he said. “You could walk across it in 20 steps.”

Among the many people he saw, the group met one area fisherman, who Hittel describes as ‘green’ and down to earth, and is someone who helped with the clean-up. He said the person’s feelings after the spill shifted over time.

“He said at first he was disappointed at Enbridge and he wanted to point fingers, [but] he said at the end of the day it’s all our fault. We still drive big F-350s and want our use of the fossil fuels.”

Hittel said that he is fairly neutral on the matter of an oil pipeline into Kitimat, seeing all sides of the issue.

“I see the benefits and I also see the risk factor,” he said. “Where are we willing to put our risks? Are we willing to risk jobs in the future for a spill? That’s the big question.”