The Spill from Hell

Credible reports are surfacing of plans to reverse the flow of the 50+ year old pipeline that carries crude oil from Portland to Montreal to accommodate getting to market Alberta Tar Sands oil, or “Dilbit,” the heated, high-pressure slurry of bitumen (tar) and the chemical diluents used to liquify the tar. Permits are being sought in Canada to implement reverse flows of parts of the pipeline system connecting Alberta processors to the eastern pipeline system. This is not your conventional crude by nearly any measure you can use to describe crude oil. The methods of extraction, the processing, the dilution, the means of transportation, its characteristics when spilled, the costs of clean up… none of it follows the game plan of extracting, processing, or cleaning up spills of conventional crude. The following article appeared in a British Columbia online journal, The Tyee, on March 5, 2012 and describes the aftermath of a major spill of 843,000 gals of dilbit into the Kalamazoo River in Michigan in July of 2010. Typical costs of crude cleanup per liter run about $18.95. This clean up has so far cost tens times that amount, is months past the predicted schedule of clean up,  and is nowhere near finished.

I’ll let the author, Mitchell Anderson, give you the details of what a major spill of dilbit looks and smells like, but the parallels to concerns with shipping tar sands oil out of Vancouver, B.C. to shipping dilbit out of Portland Harbor should not be ignored.

Spill from Hell: Diluted Bitumen

Poisoned air. Sunken gunk. A clean-up nightmare. What we’re learning from the oil sands ‘DilBit’ dump into the Kalamazoo River.

By Mitchell Anderson, 5 March, 2012, TheTyee.ca

On a July morning in 2010 in rural Michigan, a 30-inch pipeline owned by Calgary-based Enbridge Energy Partners burst and disgorged an estimated 843,000 gallons of thick crude into a tributary of the Kalamazoo River. This was no ordinary crude — it was the first ever major spill into water of diluted bitumen from the Alberta oil sands.

The cleanup challenges and health impacts around Kalamazoo were unlike anything the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency had ever dealt with, and raise serious questions about the preparedness in British Columbia to respond to such a disaster on the B.C. coast — or the Vancouver harbour.

Each year, increasing numbers of tankers filled with diluted bitumen leave Vancouver loaded from the existing Kinder Morgan pipeline from northern Alberta to a terminus in Burnaby.

Tankers exiting Vancouver harbor must transit through the shallow Second Narrows channel during “high slack water” — a short tidal window of about 20 minutes that provides loaded tankers with less than two metres of under-keel clearance.

Citizens concerned about these shipments have been assured that extensive preparations have been made to respond to an accident, and that an array of skimmers and floating oil booms are on-hand to contain any spilled oil. But what if the “oil” in these tankers doesn’t float?

Unlike conventional crude, diluted bitumen or “dilbit” is a mixture of unrefined tar that is often heavier than water and “diluent.” This is usually a cocktail of volatile solvents like naphtha or natural gas condensate that allows the thick bitumen to be pumped through the pipeline.

A toxic cloud released

The local residents and EPA responders near Kalamazoo quickly learned that bitumen and diluent do not stay together once released into the environment.

Volatile portions of the diluent containing toxic fumes of benzene and toluene began off-gassing in the area, impacting the health of almost 60 per cent of the local population with symptoms such as nausea, dizziness, headaches, coughing and fatigue. Clean-up crews were issued respirators to protect them from toxic fumes.

Local residents interviewed by the Tyee reported that even weeks after the Kalamazoo spill, they could still smell the fumes up to 50 kilometres away. The local health department went to door-to-door in the days after the spill to assess acute symptoms. They also instituted a voluntary evacuation within about one mile of the river to limit people’s exposure to benzene fumes — a known carcinogen.

Residents near the Kalamazoo River talk about how the spill affected them. Source: National Resource Defense Council.

Sunken tar sinks to bottom

As the lighter chemicals evaporated into the surrounding area, the bitumen portion began to sink to the bottom and become mixed with river sediments. Conventional clean-up equipment such as skimmers and oil booms proved useless in recovering the large amounts of submerged oil that now covers an area of river bottom estimated to be approximately 200 acres.

“This was the first time the EPA or anyone has done a submerged cleanup of this magnitude,” Ralph Dollhopf, the EPA Incident Commander for the Kalamazoo spill told the local media.

“I would never have expected… that we would have spent two or three times longer working on the submerged oil than surface oil. I don’t think anyone at the EPA anticipated that, I don’t think anyone at the state level anticipated that, I don’t think anyone in industry anticipated that.”

In the absence of any previous experience in dealing with spilled Alberta bitumen, the EPA had to “write the book” on figuring out how to recover large amounts of oil that doesn’t float.

Twenty months after the spill these expensive recovery efforts continue, and 30 miles of the Kalamazoo River impacted by the spill remain closed to swimming, boating, fishing or even wading for the foreseeable future. A recent video details the aftermath of the spill on local residents.

Clean-up 10 times what oil spills cost

Enbridge now estimates that clean up costs of the bitumen spill will cost more than $720 million. The company exceeded their insured clean-up coverage of $600 million last fall and the clean up is far from over. Compared to other spills of heavy oil, this Kalamazoo bitumen spill has been colossally expensive. A study of historic oil spills in the U.S. reported the average clean-up cost for heavy crude of $18.95 per litre. The Kalamazoo spill has so far cost over 10 times that much and counting.

Additional questions have been raised about the volume of oil discharged by the broken Enbridge pipeline. To date, the EPA reports recovering 1,146,803 gallons of oil — 35 per cent more than the volume Enbridge reported was spilled. The EPA declined to comment on this discrepancy or on the proportion of the spill that sank, citing disclosure concerns around an ongoing investigation. The EPA also declined to estimate the proportion of oil that has so far been recovered.

If a bitumen spill happens here

All of this raises troubling questions about the risks associated with a potential tanker spill near the Lower Mainland. Unlike rural Michigan, large numbers of people live or work close to Burrard Inlet or shorelines that might be impacted by a bitumen accident.

In the days following the Kalamazoo spill, authorities advised local residents within approximately one mile of the river to remain indoors or leave the area to limit their exposure to toxic fumes. Obviously that would not be practical in the Lower Mainland, home to more than two million people.

What happens when bitumen mixed with distillate pours out of pipeline. Source: Friends of Earth.

Any plume of volatile distillate would also likely be carried by prevailing winds up the confined airshed of the Fraser Valley. A recent spill of crude oil at a Kinder Morgan storage tank near Abbotsford demonstrated the impact that toxic fumes can have on local residents in the area.

As the lighter portions of the spill begin to evaporate, the progressively heavier bitumen would likely begin to sink — rendering useless the conventional clean-up equipment designed to recover floating oil. Carried within the water column, accumulating on the ocean bottom or becoming entrained in marine sediments — a spill of Alberta bitumen might prove impossible to contain.

Contacted in 2011 by The Tyee, Dr. Carl E. Brown, research manager of Emergencies, Science and Technology Division at Environment Canada confirmed that “a concern with bitumen fuels is their density is quite high and chances are if those materials were spilled into the marine environment, those products might sink.”

A recent review of existing technologies to respond to a bitumen spill stated:

“If the spilled oil eventually assumes neutral buoyancy and becomes suspended between the water surface and the bottom, then it is unlikely that any response technologies can be successfully applied to significantly control the spill.”

Bitumen laden tankers slated to multiply

A potential accident involving diluted bitumen in Vancouver harbour is obviously not the only concern regarding tanker transits through B.C. waters. Last November, the Island Trust expressed concerns to Transport Canada about preparedness for bitumen spills associated with tankers that routinely pass through the Gulf Islands. As of yet, there has been no reply.

Whether they realize it or not, British Columbians may soon see more and larger tankers carrying bitumen travelling through B.C. waters. Kinder Morgan will announce this month whether they will proceed with a $3.8-billion plan to double existing pipeline capacity from Alberta to Burnaby. Port MetroVancouver supports expanding capacity to allow larger SuexMax tankers, with 1,000,000 barrel capacity, into Burrard Inlet.

There is also the proposed Northern Gateway pipeline to Kitimat, which if approved would result in large numbers of tankers carrying both diluted bitumen and volatile distillate on the north coast.

What does that mean for public safety and the environment? Competent individuals and sophisticated equipment are on standby to respond to a conventional oil spill. Yet these preparations may prove to be a Maginot Line of defence should “unconventional crude” ever be spilled off the B.C. coast.

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When Ignorance Sits In Power

I must admit the following brought tears to my eyes. This from Brad Delong:

Down the Insurance Rabbit Hole: Justice Antonin Scalia subsequently expressed skepticism about forcing the young to buy insurance: “When they think they have a substantial risk of incurring high medical bills, they’ll buy insurance, like the rest of us.”

May the justices please meet my sister-in-law. On Feb. 8, she was a healthy 32-year-old, who was seven and a half months pregnant with her first baby. On Feb. 9, she was a quadriplegic, paralyzed from the chest down by a car accident that damaged her spine. Miraculously, the baby, born by emergency C-section, is healthy. Were the Obama health care reforms already in place, my brother and sister-in-law’s situation — insurance-wise and financially — would be far less dire. My brother’s small employer — he is the manager of a metal-fabrication shop — does not offer health insurance, which was too expensive for them to buy on their own. Fortunately, my sister-in-law had enrolled in the Access for Infants and Mothers program, California’s insurance plan for middle-income pregnant women. AIM coverage extends 60 days postpartum and paid for her stay in intensive care and early rehabilitation.

But when the 60 days is up next week, the family will fall through the welfare medicine rabbit hole….

[T]he baby fares best. He is insured through Healthy Families, California’s version of the Children’s Health Insurance Program, the federal-state plan for lower-income children ineligible for Medicaid…. California is relatively generous, with eligibility extending up to 250 percent of the federal poverty level of $19,090 for a family of three; 27 states have lower limits. When the AIM coverage expires, my sister-in-law will be covered by Medi-Cal, California’s version of Medicaid, because she is disabled and has limited income. But because my brother works, they are subject to cost-sharing: they pay the first $1,100 of her health costs each month…. They must also meet the Medi-Cal asset test: beyond their house and one vehicle, they can hold $3,150 in total assets, a limit last adjusted in 1989. They cannot save for retirement (retirement plans are not exempt from the asset test in California, as they are in some states)…. These are the limitations under which 7.5 million Medi-Cal recipients live. Nationwide, more than 50 million people are covered by their states’ version of Medicaid. Some states are more lenient in their income and asset tests, others less so. Nowhere is life in these programs a picnic.

That said, Medicaid is an important safety net for the poor, and the Obama reform would expand the program to cover all Americans under 133 percent of the poverty level (currently one has to be both poor and categorically eligible — a child or a pregnant woman, for example). But for the middle class who are thrust into Medicaid by circumstance, the program’s strictures are truly life-altering….

Their best hope is the survival of the Obama reform. Perhaps my brother can get a job that offers health insurance for the family, but without the reform’s protections, like the prohibition on denying coverage for pre-existing conditions, removal of annual and lifetime insurance caps, and reinsurance for large claims, there is no guarantee that they could obtain insurance. More likely, they would buy insurance on a health exchange. Here in Massachusetts, where such an exchange is in place, they could have purchased a plan with an affordable premium (at their income level, the monthly premiums range from $39 to $91 per adult). And these money and insurance issues would not have added to the other stresses in their profoundly changed lives.

Instead, their financial future is shattered…. One incident in particular struck me to the core. A woman from a small community nearby had something for us. A cancer survivor, she had decided to “give back” by placing donation cans in stores around town. She had finished her drive and consolidated the money. The small coffee can she handed over to me and my sister-in-law had a slit in the lid and was decorated with pink felt and ribbons, now a little smudged from handling. Inside were several hundred dollars in small bills. We burst into tears. This is social policy in the richest nation in the history of the world.

An Unnecessary Evil

When members of the 99%, Doug Bowen and Kathy Chaiklin, were granted an audience with Maine Republican Senator Susan Collins earlier this year, the pair sat with Senator Collins to discuss campaign financing and the donations she has received from wealthy out-of-state interests. The following exchange was recalled from memory after the meeting:

Doug – Senator [Margaret Chase] Smith stood up to Senator Joe McCarthy when he nearly paralyzed government by accusing officials of being communists. At a great risk to her career she exposed him as a liar, when other members of congress were afraid to. Now, we believe the greatest threat to democracy is unlimited special interest money from corporations and lobbyists and unions that members of Congress rely on to win elections, they are influenced by it. You know that 1% of Americans contribute 99% of all the money members raise to win elections.

Senator – I don’t believe Congress is influenced by campaign contributions. I don’t think large contributions are a problem. Now, the Super PAC money might be a problem, its so huge, the ten million the Adelsons gave to Gingrich’s campaign…..though I don’t think that would influence Newt… Casinos?

Doug – Americans were very concerned about the influence of big money on Congress long before Citizens United. Americans have given Congress like 10% approval ratings for years, 80% think “government is controlled by a few big interests looking out for themselves.” These are polls. What people actually think about Congress is what’s really important, we can’t trust it. What’s a regular person supposed to think when he sees a corporation give huge amounts of money to a Senator, how can he believe there isn’t going to be something in return, I don’t mean passing cash, but like favors returned over time –

Senator – No its not like that. I am not influenced. At all. Most in Congress are not. (vigorous shaking of head).

I’ve often wondered how a person in Senator Collins position could make this type of statement, a statement so clearly out of sync with prevailing public sentiments, and still feel as if the statement was an honest one. What rationalization would have to take place to allow the Senator a clear conscience with regard to the funds ALL Congresspeople must collect in our present broken and unfair campaign finance system to compete in elections? The following episode from a recent This American Life broadcast might supply an answer.

The episode is called Take the Money and Run for Office. In it both senators and congress members describe the process they must use to collect needed campaign donations to stay competitive. The twist, though, for those that have in mind narrow-interest corporate lobbyists dangling campaign funds in front of hapless or easily influenced Congress members is in the fact that Congress members and their campaign staff are often the ones soliciting campaign funds, and an audience with a Senator or Congress person is more easily attained when the lubricant of campaign donations is present or at least promised. (Money is certainly not the only avenue to catch the ear of a senator or congress member, but it certainly helps.) A lobbyist’s office hasn’t returned funding raising phone calls from a Senator’s or Congress member’s office? Why should that senator or member make time in their busy schedules to hear what that particular lobbying firm has to say?

If Senator Collins’ office initiates the fund raising call, and couples face-time with her to the success or failure of her outreach efforts does her influence over those she seeks funds from preclude or overshadow their influence over her decisions? Is this the rationalization that threads a twisted path through the thicket of influence buying and influence peddling that to the public seems obvious, pernicious, very suspect?

Bundlers for candidates are given more easy access to successful candidates because through their fund raising efforts they become players, often seeking appointments to the many political appointment positions that successful candidates make upon winning office. You pay to play, or you watch from the sidelines. For the vast majority of people watching from the sidelines it is difficult to tell who is trying to buy influence and who is peddling influence. Take the Money and Run for Office captures some of how this system works and why it needs to be changed.


Economic Inequality and Political Representation (pdf), Larry M. Bartels, Department of Politics and Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs, Princeton University, August 2005.

(MP3 audio file of Take the Money and Run for Office will be available after 7pm, April 1, 2012.)

Occupy = Zapatistas

“The government will need to eliminate the Zapatistas to demonstrate their effective control of the national territory and security policy.” Mexico, Political Update, Chase Manhattan Bank.

“It is time for us to see this in a larger context. Decisions are made in place like Geneva that impact on the poorest of the poor in Mexico. They decide that the conditionality of a loan to Mexico is going to include the export of meat from Mexico, that means that the land that the Mexicans have used to grow corn is now used to grow cattle. And that cattle is sold to make fast food in the United States. That’s a decision not made by the Mexicans, it’s made by a world trade organization. Who is the enforcer of this? Well of course, the US military becomes the enforcer of a non-democratic, even anti-democratic, corporate effort to control the world economy.” Blasé Bonpane, Director, Office of the Americas.

“We are in this era of a global economy. We are in this era where corporations want to be able to go anywhere in the world, pay as little as they can pay, exploit workers as much as they can exploit them, then move on to the next place. It is very, very convenient to have this big body of dispensable workers right across the border. So I think Mexico is a goldmine for US corporations, and they’re still in the process of figuring out how to tap that goldmine. And the things like the uprising in Chiapas become a real inconvenience for them. “   Medea Benjamin, Co-director, Global Exchange.

“The day the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) comes into effect, several thousand soldiers take over half the state of Chiapas, declaring a war against the global corporate power they say rules Mexico. They call themselves the Zapatista National Liberation Army. Zapatista shows this uprising, the story of a peasant rebellion, armed and up against the first world military. It is the story of a movement that transformed Mexican and international political culture forever …”  thoughtmaybe.com

Watch the nearly one hour video here.

Growth, Inequality, Policy, and Power: Connecting the Dots

Another new Teach-In addition comes by way of a slideshow presentation given by Jared Bernstein of the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities during a talk in the Daniel Thursz Distinguished Professor of Social Justice Lecture series at the University of Maryland in March 2012. This is an easy to follow discussion of the causes of our present inequality and how the prevalent economic policy agenda is exacerbating inequality, a growth in poverty as opposed to fair economic growth, and a rise in children living in poverty.

The Story of Citizens United v. FEC

The latest addition to the Teach-In Page is the excellent resource found on The Story of Stuff website telling the story of the Citizen’s United v FEC decision, the abysmal decision reached about two years ago by the activist Roberts Supreme Court, the most activist Supreme Court in decades. Joining the movement to overturn this disasterous decision begins with understanding what the problem is. Efforts to pass local and state resolutions, and Constitutional amendments to win back control of our government are under way. This primer gives a great description of the problem all of the efforts being taken are meant to address.

The Top Ten (that profit from war… and why state and local budgets are in depression)

Military contractors lobby Congress and the Pentagon for contracts, and once they win the contracts they use some of that money to lobby Congress and the Pentagon for contracts, and once they win the contracts they use some of that money to lobby Congress and the Pentagon for contracts, and once they…

The Top Ten.

Haven’t we been warned that this might happen?

Fun with Nukes

No, seriously. Want to see what damage you could do with a “Little Boy,” the Hiroshima 16kiloton device, or a “Fat Man,” the Nagasaki and Trinity test 20kiloton bomb? How about Pakistan’s largest weapon (45kt), or India’s (60kt), or perhaps France’s TN80/81 (300kt), or the US’s W-59 (Minuteman I warhead at 1Megaton), or perhaps the 1.2Megaton B-83, the largest bomb in the US arsenal. You can test out the largest bomb developed in the USSR, the Tsar Bomba weighing in at a whooping 100Megaton, for kicks. (This one is a dousy. Drop this one on my apartment in Portland, Maine and the thermal radiation would extend from Portsmouth, New Hampshire to almost Augusta, while fatalities from just the air blast effects with overpressure values of 20 pounds per square inch would be at about 100% in a 14 mile diameter around ground zero. That takes in all of Portland, South Portland, Scarborough, Cape Elizabeth, most of Falmouth, Westbrook, Cumberland, and Yarmouth. More or less, most of Cumberland County would be dead or dying within days.)

But, no, sorry you won’t be able to see the damage that could be inflicted by any of Israel’s 200 or so nuclear devices on Israel’s neighbors. Israel’s undeclared, unmonitored, non-Non-proliferation Treaty nuclear arsenal is still a very well kept open secret that nobody is inclined to talk about, especially in light of the possibility of it engendering an arms race in the Middle East. (Move along, Iran, nothing to see here…)

And then once you’ve gotten a sense of the destruction the world’s nuclear arsenals can inflict upon humankind, you can visit Global Zero to see the who, how, and why of the effort to rid the world of nuclear devices.

When A Very Profitable Business Model Doesn’t Make A Lick of Sense: Big Food

Robyn O’brien speaks at a TED event in Austin, Texas in 2011 regarding the food industry’s introduction of foreign proteins into food products to boost production and profits, and the appearance of an upward trend in food allergies concurrent with the food modifications. As a former financial and food analyst Ms. O’brien understands that from a profit standpoint, the modifications make perfect sense. The problem with this business model, however, is the modifications are untested, and a consequence of “proving harm” rather than “proving safety” is to shift the burden of proof onto those least able to provide proof. Instead of proving the profits being made are from a safe product, the industry capitalizes on patented modifications that most industrialized nations consider patently unsafe. And while those nations of the world that monitor and regulate their food supplies have rejected these modifications because of unproven safety, we in the US are made to accept these modifications on the basis that they haven’t been proven harmful; this is “proving harm” or “proving safety.” On whom does the risk and cost lie in this arrangement? And who reaps the benefits?

Our situation today is also that modified proteins are in products not labeled as containing such modifications – untested foreign proteins from modified genes in unlabeled foods such as milk and corn – coupled with a stark correlation of rising cancer rates, food allergies, the cost of health care in general in the US and the introduction of modifications that increased profitability in every step of the food production chain. To add insult to injury, the organic farming community, producers that don’t use these clever modifications, is overburdened with regulation and labeling requirements that put the organic food industry at a disadvantage, driving up costs for those seeking real, unmodified food.

This is an 18 minute clip that succinctly describes a business model that pays extremely well, keeps the competition at bay through preferential public policy benefits, and operates at the taxpayer’s expense with subsidies and tax considerations. Big Agriculture’s version of Profits over People.

The Most Dangerous Man in America

The latest addition to the Video page is a film entitled, The Most Dangerous Man In America, directed by Judith Ehrlich and Rick Goldsmith. This is what Henry Kissinger called Daniel Ellsberg in the followup of Ellsberg’s leaking the Pentagon Papers to Congress and the press describing the consistent, systematic lying about Vietnam coming from the administrations of Truman, Eisenhower, Kennedy, Johnson, and later by extension, Nixon. Ellsberg was a devoted cold war numbers crunching analyst working at the Rand Corporation completely in the thrall of the idea that the spread of communism was antithetical to democratic Western ideals and needed to be stopped by force of arms. After witnessing first hand the fabrication of evidence supporting a scale up of involvement in Vietnam by Johnson, Ellsberg began questioning the entire house of cards.

This discovery came first by remotely collecting data from military personnel on the ground in Vietnam, and then by participating as a civilian in full uniform and with arms in the conflict. Ellsberg eventually saw that the manufactured crises reported to the public were by and large ruses giving cover for what amounted to mass murder of hundreds of thousands of civilians by eventually the hundreds of thousands of tons of bombs dropped indiscriminately on the countryside of North Vietnam.

When the truth of this became understood, Ellsberg weighed his options and after witnessing the resolve of draft-dodgers willing to go to prison rather to an unjust war, he sought to “cast his whole vote,” as Thoreau had advised in Civil Disobedience, and find a way to exert his maximum influence on stopping the war. The Rand report that came to be known as the Pentagon Papers was the top secret history of the Vietnam War documenting the US involvement in the war from Truman through Johnson, and became the means by which Ellsberg would accomplish this. Leaking this report first to members of Congress, who largely ignored it, and then to the press, most notably the New York Times, the entire course of the war took a turn.  Nixon’s overstep trying to bring Ellsberg down played a role in Nixon’s own downfall. (Kissinger’s advice to Nixon, revealed in the Nixon tapes and captured in this film, was for me shocking. Kissinger told Nixon in no uncertain terms, Nixon should seek to de-escalate and end the war honorably to avoid being seen by the world as “a butcher.” Nixon escalated the war.)

This latest addition to the video page is an excellent rendition of this history. Howard Zinn, Richard Falk, Daniel Ellsberg, Anthony Russo, and a slew of interviews by many others involved in the work being conducted at Rand, in the government, or close to the participants in the leak tell the story of Ellsberg’s defection from the calculated brutality of cold war analytics that supported the deaths of tens of thousands of American soldiers and uncountable Vietnamese civilians to dedicated peace activist. It is a tale with deep relevance to our present state of affairs with our involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan, the proliferation of deception, torture, profiteering, and official state lies.

I think one thing the people will conclude when they’ve read it is that they have not asked enough, they have not expected enough or demanded enough in the way of fullness, in the way of responsibility, from their public servants. Make that known and I think that our Constitution will continue to function better than it has been in the past. (Daniel Ellsberg in a nationally broadcast interview with Dick Cavett)

 

The courage we need is not the courage, the fortitude, to be obedient in the service of an unjust war, to help conceal lies… … it is the courage at last to face honestly the truth and the reality of what we are doing in the world and act responsibly to change it. (Daniel Ellsberg)

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