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WTF Wednesday: Crying over spilled bitumen

Kate Hefford

Another day, another oil spill. Eighty-four thousand gallons of bitumen oil from Alberta leaked into a suburban Arkansas neighbourhood after an ExxonMobil pipeline ruptured this weekend. Twenty-two families have to stay off their property for at least a week. But it’s okay, because as an ExxonMobil media response said, they “apologize for any disruption and inconvenience that it has caused.”

Let me elaborate on what this inconvenience entails. A river of thick corrosive tar has covered backyards and driveways. It’s like playing lava—the black parts are magma and the green parts are land—only this stuff contains carcinogens. The spill’s effects on residents and the damages it has caused have yet to be assessed. But consider that the 2010 Enbridge’s 877,000 gallon oil spill into Michigan’s Kalamazoo River caused symptoms such as nausea and vomiting for nearby residents.

And the clean-up is slow. About 12,000 barrels of oil and water from the Arkansas leak have been vacuumed up so far, with no date for completion. Oil is still being removed from the Kalamazoo River spill three years ago and cleanup costs should rack up to $1 billion once it’s done.

Generally, there are about 364 pipeline leaks in the U.S. each year. Last week alone, three oil spills were  reported. There was a 2,200 barrel spill in Alberta last Monday. Two days later, fifteen gallons spilled in Minnesota. A broken pipe at Suncor Energy Inc. contaminated the Athabasca River in Alberta the very next day.

Good thing Harper cancelled 3,000 environmental screenings on the potential damages of new resource developments. Potential damages like pipeline leaks. Are you kidding me, Stephen? Environmental screenings are what keep resource developments in check, ensuring less harm done on the environment. Meanwhile, we await Obama’s decision on Keystone XL, a tidy little pipeline extending from Alberta’s tar sands to an oil refinery in Texas.

There are a lot oil spills, and they seem inevitable as long as we’re transporting oil. Oil companies keep tabs on their pipelines by running infrequent tests on them and using “leak detection technology”. And when one of them bursts, leaks, ruptures, or fails us on a huge scale, taxpayer dollars are diverted to cleaning up the mess.

That’s because we’re talking bitumen here, a peanut-butter-thick substance that is exempt from the Oil Spill Liability Trust Fund—which, after a spill, pays the oil removal bill. The mentality is that bitumen isn’t oil before it makes it to the refinery, even though it can spill and cause more damage. So companies like ExxonMobil and Enbridge contribute nil to the fund that cleans up their mess. Whatever the fund doesn’t cover is compensated by the government. However, incidents like this one can result in charges on the company.

If the $5-billion Keystone XL doesn’t get Obama’s OK, that doesn’t mean the oil can’t be transported. Transportation can still be done via train, which comes with its own slew of spills. For example, a train transporting crude oil from Canada spilled 15,000 gallons of oil when it derailed in Minnesota on Wednesday.

We hardly hear about the frequent occurrence of oil spills anymore—although we should. We should be enraged. When oil spills hit this magnitude, it’s guaranteed that people and the environment suffer. Oil is being transported because there’s a demand for it. But at this point, it seems irresponsible to transport it—or even extract it.

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