Oil spill settlement seems largest in Michigan history

Jim Lynch
The Detroit News

State officials say the settlement reached with Enbridge Energy over 2010’s Kalamazoo River oil spill is the largest of its kind in Michigan history.

On Wednesday, however, the $75 million package of completed and pending restoration programs drew mixed reviews from members of the environmental community. For some, the agreement does what is necessary to restore and monitor the Kalamazoo River in the future.

For others, the deal lacks an adequate penalty for Enbridge — something that would ensure the Canadian company or another pipeline owner never repeats the steps that led to the disaster.

“In the realm of what is achievable, I think (Michigan’s Department of Environmental Quality) checked all of the right boxes,” said Nick Schroeck, director of the Transnational Environmental Law Clinic at Wayne State University. “This will go a long way toward righting the wrong that was the pollution of the Kalamazoo River. ...

“Most importantly, it provides funding for long-term monitoring and habitat restoration. And that’s so key.”

But Beth Wallace, an environmental consultant specializing in pipeline safety, called the settlement package a “slap on the wrist.”

“We just went through one of the largest inland pipeline spills in U.S. history only five years ago,” Wallace said. “To not have a fine or penalty given to the company responsible is, in the most basic terms, interesting.”

The settlement package — which ends any further legal action against Enbridge for the 2010 spill — includes $40 million in already-completed projects and $35 million in work yet to be done:

■ $30 million in wetland compensation — restored and newly acquired acreage.

■ $18 million for removal of the Ceresco Dam (completed in 2014) and restoration work on the surrounding mile of the Kalamazoo River.

■ $10 million for five already-created recreational access sites along the river.

■ $5 million for stream restoration throughout the watershed.

■ $12 million in reimbursement to the state, as well as assurances Enbridge will pay future oversight costs.

The Kalamazoo River Watershed Council has monitored the cleanup work since the spill was first reported in late July 2010. More than 800,000 gallons of heavy crude oil flowed out of the ruptured line into Talmadge Creek and the Kalamazoo River.

In an email, President Stephen Hamilton had high praise for the state’s deal.

“The watershed council is particularly excited about the funding to deal with the aging dams at and downstream of the City of Otsego, which are at risk of failing,” he wrote. “Removal of those decrepit dams, which serve no purpose now, has long been a goal of the council as well as state environmental agencies.”

Hamilton and others contacted by The Detroit News this week said they will be interested to see what the U.S. Department of Justice and the Environmental Protection Agency do on possible penalties for Enbridge related to violations of the Clean Water Act.

Wallace said the state’s settlement — without a major financial penalty — could set a bad precedent for Michigan. Another Enbridge oil pipeline runs beneath the Straits of Mackinac, she said, raising an interesting scenario.

“Our state does have this tendency to not fine companies but come up with these creative agreements,” she said. “Would they have taken this approach if the spill had happened at the straits?”

JLynch@detroitnews.com

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