As Risk of Great Lakes Oil Spill Grows, So Do Concerns About Cleanup

The Great Lakes region has become a hub for refining and transporting oil, particularly heavy tar sands oil from Canada. As more and more oil flows through the region the risk for oil spills has grown. And the U.S. Coast Guard has admitted it doesn't have the methods to clean up heavy oil spills in the Great Lakes.

Elizabeth Brackett begins our story with the oil spill at the BP Whiting oil refinery last year.

Thanks to our sponsors:

View all sponsors


Elizabeth Brackett: Carolyn Marsh likes to bird watch on the beach next to the BP Whiting oil refinery.

The beach looks clean today but on March 24, 2014, oil spilled into the lake from this BP outfall.

Carolyn MarshCarolyn Marsh Carolyn Marsh, Whiting resident: When I first heard about it, it was from the media, I didn't hear anything from the city or … there were no alerts in the community. And I live very close to the plant.

EB: BP deployed booms and had cleanup crews on the beach. Initially the company estimated that up to 800 gallons of oil had flowed into the lake. Later, the company doubled that estimate to just over 1,600 gallons.

The spill resulted from a failed valve that allowed oil to flow into the lake. The leak occurred in an area of the refinery that had just undergone a $4.2 billion upgrade in order to refine more heavy tar sands oil.

A BP spokesman at the time of the spill confirmed that heavy oil was involved.

Scott Dean, BP spokesman: The unit that was associated with this breakdown was running a heavy crude oil at the time but it was indeed a blend of crude, a blend of heavy and of light crude.

EB: When heavy petroleum oil is part of a spill it is much harder to clean up that spill, according to marine toxicologist and oil industry observer Riki Ott.

Riki OttRiki Ott Riki Ott: It sinks. It sinks. And there really hasn't been that much effort by the oil industry to develop the spill response measures, as much effort as getting it out of the ground.

EB: BP used traditional methods of booms and skimmers to clean up the spill, methods that don’t reach oil that sinks. But seven days after the spill, Dean said the cleanup was successful.

SD: We're pleased to report that after a joint assessment by the U.S. Coast Guard, EPA and representatives from BP we have found the vast majority of the oil.

EB: Four days later, the EPA issued a press release saying the spill cleanup was complete.

Ott doesn’t buy it.

RO: Spilling oil is like opening Pandora's Box. You simply never get it all back again. Once oil spills, it starts to weather, and this is a process driven by waves and wind–of which there was a lot for the first 48 hours after the spill. So I think the oil, wherever it went–into the air, into the water, down into the water column, maybe down as far as the bottom–I think it just got away from the sampling equipment.

EB: The U.S. Coast Guard is responsible for coordinating oil spill cleanups in the Great Lakes. But according to this government document, "the USCG lacks a reliable technology, technique or strategy that can remove submerged oil."

T.J. Manning, U.S. Coast Guard: The Coast Guard is working with our federal and state partners to develop more robust plans and to develop research and development programs to address those significant challenges heavy oil presents.

EB: Though the BP oil spill was a relatively small spill, activists say it raises major concerns about whether or not there are the resources and the methods available to clean up a major spill in the Great Lakes.

The risk of a major oil spill in the Great Lakes has increased with the growing number of refineries and oil pipelines in the area.

There are 21 refineries and 16,000 miles of pipelines in the Great Lakes region, making the area a major hub for transporting and refining oil.

This concentration of oil near the Great Lakes worries U.S. Senator Dick Durbin (D-IL).

Sen. Dick DurbinSen. Dick Durbin Sen. Dick Durbin: I'm concerned because we have pipelines that cross the Great Lakes and those pipelines are transporting these coal tar sands from Canada and other places. It's a toxic, threatening situation and we can't be too careful. We've had spills from these pipelines–Kalamazoo River–and we’ve got to take this seriously.

EB: The 2010 oil spill in the Kalamazoo River, a Lake Michigan tributary, was the largest and most expensive inland oil spill in the United States. Five years later, the EPA says there is still oil in the Kalamazoo.

The disastrous spill also raised concerns over a 62-year-old pipeline owned by the same company that runs under the Straits of Mackinac, where Lake Michigan joins Lake Huron.

The company insists their pipeline is safe, but recently agreed to a cleanup drill with the Coast Guard, EPA and local responders.

TM: From all accounts that I have talked to, the drill was successful getting the folks together from the local, state, federal and trustee community and to take a really good look at those plans and that was the success of the drill.

EB: But Ott says the drill was only a test for oil that floats.

SO: Oil that sinks is a completely different ballgame. You’d need a completely different drill for that and part of that drill is looking where the oil went. Sinking oil is going to go different places than oil that floats.

EB: The risk of an oil spill in the Great Lakes became a reality last August when divers discovered an oil barge in Lake Erie that had gone down in 1937.

TM: Some oil has leaked from the Argo barge; a minimal amount of oil as we can tell. We have been monitoring with air monitoring and water monitoring plans to ensure that we know if and when any more oil comes out while we are here working on it.

EB: Joel Brammeier, from the Alliance for the Great Lakes, says transporting oil in the Great Lakes is prohibited today, though there have been applications for permits, which he opposes.

Joel BrammeierJoel Brammeier Joel Brammeier: Starting to ship crude oil by vessel on the Great Lakes is adding risk when we've already got more risk than we can deal with.

EB: There is a national contingency plan for cleaning up oil spills, but it does not include plans for cleaning up heavy oil. Ott says this creates a huge risk for those who depend on the Great Lakes for drinking water.

RO: The Great Lakes are drinking water for 40 million people. Oil travels when it spills: It travels on the water surface, it travels in the water column and it travels across the bottom. The nearest crib is two miles away from the BP Whiting refinery; another is seven miles away.

This is a huge threat. If I were the municipalities there and the people there I would be demanding that my city is asking for a seat at the table in the oil spill prevention and response planning measures as they go forward.

EB: A spill from one of the many pipelines that surrounds the Great Lakes could also threaten drinking water.

JB: We've got some real concerns about the ability of the federal government to regulate and monitor pipeline safety responsibly here in the Great Lakes region. 

EB: There is legislation being proposed by two Michigan senators that would boost federal pipeline scrutiny and ban oil tankers in the Great Lakes.

Durbin is considering the legislation and says tankers could pose a threat.

DD: What would you do if there were a spill right smack dab in the middle of the Great Lakes that is the water supply for so many people around America?

EB: At the moment that is a question without an answer.

For “Chicago Tonight,” I’m Elizabeth Brackett.

Illinois Petroleum Council executive director Jim Watson says preventing oils spills is a top priority in the petroleum industry. He acknowledges that Chicago has become a major hub for transporting and refining oil but does not agree that that puts Chicago and the Great Lakes at risk for a major oil spill. He says the industry has a strong safety record with 99.9 percent of petroleum products that are shipped via pipeline arriving safely at their destination.

Related stories:

Activists: 62-Year-Old Pipeline Poses Threat to Straits of Mackinac

A break in the aging pipeline that crosses under the pristine waters of the Straits of Mackinac could be catastrophic for the Great Lakes. Is the old pipeline a threat? Elizabeth Brackett examines the issue.

Lake Michigan Oil Spill

Report from March 2014: BP says all the oil from last week's spill is now cleaned up. But activists worry about the possibility of future spills. Elizabeth Brackett has the latest details. 

Thanks to our sponsors:

View all sponsors

Thanks to our sponsors:

View all sponsors