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Great Lakes racing to prepare for a new kind of oil spill

The U.S. Coast Guard’s Ninth District is in charge of protecting the maritime interests of the Great Lakes. Those interests include industries like shipping, fishing, and tourism that create billions of dollars in revenue for the Great Lakes basin each year. And so, the agency is always thinking about oil spills. It conducts dozens of tabletop and real world preparation exercises every year to prepare.

But the oil spill game is changing.The explosion in tar sands production in western Canada means increasing amounts of crude oil is making its way to the American Midwest. Imports of crude oil to the Midwest reached a record high earlier this month, according to the Energy Information Association. Tar sands bitumen is different than traditional crude oil. It’s heavier and it sinks in freshwater. And that has caught the attention of the people in charge of cleaning up oil spills, including the U.S. Coast Guard.

“The Midwest and the Great Lakes lie at a virtual crossroads of production and transportation and distribution. And because those things carry inherent risk. we’re faced with some tough questions about how to deal with that,” says Rear Admiral Fred Midgette, who commands the U.S. Coast Guard’s Ninth District.

“From my perspective, clearly one of the most important things that are going to happen in the next decade is how we handle this issue of heavy oil. We need to get it right,” he told a crowd last week in Detroit at the International Spill Control Organization’s annual forum. ISCO has been around for decades, but this was the first time its annual forum focused exclusively on responding to heavy, Group V oils that can sink in water.

The reason why has a lot to do with what happened four years ago in the small town of Marshall, Michigan. On July 26, 2010, a 30-inch pipeline belonging to Enbridge Energy Partners LLP burst and spilled over a million gallons of tar sands oil into Talmadge Creek. From there, it made its way to the Kalamazoo River where it traveled over 35 miles downstream, coating birds, turtles, and other wildlife with oil.

Cleaning up the river took longer than anyone expected. That’s because tar sands oil is too thick to move through a pipeline on its own--imagine a kind of shiny, black peanut butter. It’s thinned out with other chemicals to get it flowing. But when the mixture is exposed to air, those chemicals gradually evaporate over a period of several days or weeks. At the Kalamazoo River, that left behind over a million gallons of heavy, sticky goo at the river bottom. Crews are finally wrapping up the dredging process four years and nearly $1 billion later.

“I can’t speak for a lot of the other players, but I know for us the EPA response and the Enbridge response to the Kalamazoo, I think opened a lot of people’s eyes in that the threat is real from heavy oils and what they can do to the environment,” says Jerry Popiel, incident management advisor for the Coast Guard’s 9th District.

Popiel says there aren’t any vessels carrying tar sands crude oil on the Great Lakes right now, but at least one company--Calumet Specialty Products Partners in Indianapolis--has expressed interest in the idea. And that has Popiel thinking about the challenges of responding to a such a spill in the Great Lakes.

“It’s one thing when you have 10 feet of water, 5 feet of water, or maybe 30 feet of water. Well, okay there are tethers and things and divers you might potentially use for there. That’s one set of problems. If it happens in Lake Superior in 800 feet of water, that’s a different set of problems,” he says.

Right now, those are problems without good solutions. The Coast Guard’s trying to change that, and so is a whole industry that’s grown up to respond to oil spills. In 2011, the Coast Guard awarded $2.5 million to three companies. They were asked to develop technologies that could better detect and recover sinking oils.

Some of those technologies were on display at last week’s forum, including one from Alion Science and Technology called the Seagoing Adaptable Heavy Oil Recovery System or the SEAHORSE. The SEAHORSE looks more like a giant carburetor than a dainty ocean creature. But Al Arsenault, an engineer with the company, says it’s safer and more effective than traditional methods.

“The scenarios in the past have used divers. It’s a dirty job, it’s a very dangerous job to send divers down when this product is on the water column, on the surface, and on the bottom. It sticks to you like peanut butter,” Arsenault explains.

The SEAHORSE doesn’t use any divers. Instead, its trio of remotely operated vehicles scans the seafloor for oil and pumps it back up to the surface. SEAHORSE and other new technologies let responders reach spills hundreds of feet under water and can detect and recover oil at the same time. The Coast Guard says these new technologies are promising, but they aren’t widely available and can be costly to build.

Emergency responders in our region may still have some time to sort out those problems. It isn’t clear yet that Great Lakes shipping is going to be a good option for moving tar sands oil. For one thing, the lakes are frozen over for several months every year.

“The other big issue is competition. Shipping oil on the Great Lakes will make sense if it’s less expensive than shipping it by rail,” says Steve Fisher, Executive Director of the American Great Lakes Ports Association.   

Fisher says a lot would have to change before tankers full of tar sands crude oil set sail on the Great Lakes. It would require the oil industry to make long-term commitments with shipping companies to entice them to make investments in new ships and shoreside loading facilities.

Still, environmentalists say economic pressures are building.

Several refineries in the region, including one just south of Chicago in Whiting, Indiana, have been upgraded to process tar sands oil. Lyman Welch, Water Quality Program Director at the Alliance for the Great Lakes, says shipping by vessel on the lakes also opens up a route for transport to refineries on the East Coast.

Welch says right now, a lot of the decisions that could set the scene for shipping this kind of oil on the Great Lakes are happening at a state or local level. And he says that patchwork approach could have consequences for the entire region.

“A spill could happen anywhere, not just in the state where the initial dock is built to allow for this shipment,” says Welch.

The dock he’s referring to is owned by Elkhorn Industries in Superior, Wisconsin. The company reapplied for a permit to upgrade the dock in August after its first application was rejected by the state earlier this year. It’s considered a first step in the project proposed by Calumet Specialty Products, though Elkhorn says they don’t have concrete plans to partner with the company yet.

But the possibility that it could worries Welch, who says existing spill response preparation measures are inadequate when it comes to responding to a spill of tar sands oil.

There are increasing efforts to beef up those measures. Emergency responders like the Coast Guard and EPA are starting to include heavy oil spills in their preparation exercises. And the spill response industry continues to develop new and better technology for dealing with heavy oil spills.

But Welch says we shouldn’t accept the shipment of tar sands oil on the Great Lakes as inevitable, even as we work out the regulatory kinks.

“It’s vital that our Great Lakes region and community has a discussion as to whether the Great Lakes should become this thoroughfare for tar sands crude oil shipping. Are we prepared to accept that risk?”

That’s not a question, Welch says, for industry or government, but for each of the 34 million people who call the Great Lakes basin home.

April Van Buren is an assistant producer at WKAR in East Lansing. You can follow her on Twitter @aprilveebee.

Front and Center is funded by The Joyce Foundation: Improving the quality of life in the Great Lakes region and across the country. 

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