Amid pipeline debate, two costly cleanups forever change towns

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MARSHALL, Mich. -- As the Obama administration inches closer to a decision on whether to approve the construction of the much-debated Keystone XL pipeline, costly cleanup efforts in two communities stricken by oil spills portend the potential hazards of transporting heavy Canadian crude.

It has been three years since an Enbridge Energy pipeline ruptured beneath this small western Michigan town, spewing more than 840,000 gallons of thick oil sands crude into the Kalamazoo River and Talmadge Creek, the largest oil pipeline failure in the country's history. In March, an Exxon Mobil pipeline burst in Mayflower, Ark., releasing thousands of gallons of oil and forcing the evacuation of 22 homes.

Both pipeline companies have spent tens of millions of dollars trying to recover the heavy crude, similar to the product Keystone XL would carry. River and floodplain ecosystems have had to be restored, and neighborhoods are still being refurbished. Legal battles are being waged, and residents' lives have been forever changed.

"All oil spills are pretty ugly and not easy to clean up," said Stephen K. Hamilton, a professor of aquatic ecology at Michigan State University who is advising the Environmental Protection Agency and the state on the cleanup in Marshall. "But this kind of an oil is even harder to clean up because of its tendency to stick to surfaces and its tendency to become submerged."

Before July 26, 2010, hardly anyone in Marshall had heard of Enbridge Energy Partners, a Houston firm whose parent company is based in Calgary, Alberta.

Much of the Kalamazoo's plant and animal life has returned. But ridding the water of all the oil -- some of which sank to the river floor and continues to generate a kaleidoscopic sheen -- has proved elusive. Though a 40-mile stretch of the river has reopened after being closed for two years and most of the oil has been recovered or has evaporated, vestiges of the spill are everywhere. "For Sale" signs dot the rolling cornfields and soy farms. Once-coveted riverfront homes sit vacant.

Matt Davis, a real estate agent, said he had struggled to sell homes since the spill. "Enbridge hopes people forget. ... We didn't ask for them to have their pipeline burst in our backyard. Make it right. Take care of the mess you made."

In May, the EPA found that Enbridge had drastically underestimated the amount of oil still in the river. The agency estimated that 180,000 gallons had most likely drifted to the bottom, more than 100 times Enbridge's projection. It ordered Enbridge to dredge those sections of the river. The dredging started on July 30, and stretches of the river are being closed again.

Jason Manshum, an Enbridge spokesman, said the company was working to address the township's concerns. "This is the single-largest incident in the history of our organization," he said. "From the beginning, in July 2010, we said that we would be committed to this community and the natural environment, for as long as it would take to right the rupture that happened. About three years later to the day, we're still here."

The same sentiment echoes in Mayflower, Ark., a quiet, working-class town of 2,200 tucked among the wetlands and dogwood thickets near Little Rock.

On March 29, an Exxon Mobil pipeline burst near the Northwoods subdivision, spilling an estimated 210,000 gallons of heavy Canadian crude, coating a residential street with oil. Twenty-two homes were evacuated.

Now, four months later, the neighborhood of low-slung brick homes is largely deserted as remediation continues.

After EPA monitoring found air quality to be safe, residents of 17 of the homes were allowed back. But only a few have returned.

"People here are still unsure about whether it's safe for their families," said April Lane of the Faulkner County Citizens Advisory Group, a community organization working with residents.

Exxon has spent $2 million on temporary housing for residents and more than $44 million on the cleanup, said Aaron Stryk, an Exxon spokesman. "We can't say it enough: We are so, so sorry this incident took place and for the disruption and for the inconvenience that has taken place. We are staying in Mayflower until the job is done."

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