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The Whistleblower

Michigan oil spill cleanup worker John Bolenbaugh
"Enbridge Covered Up Oil" reads the hat that John Bolenbaugh wears while filming submerged tar sands crude along the banks of the Kalamazoo River in Battle Creek, Michigan. Bolenbaugh was fired by a contractor for Canadian pipeline giant Enbridge, Inc., in October 2010. He says he was wrongfully terminated for threatening to go to the EPA with reports of hidden oil following a July 2010 spill.
In July 2010, more than a million gallons of tar sands crude spilled into Michigan’s Kalamazoo River. A fired cleanup worker with a dark past claims he was ordered to cover up oil to meet federal deadlines. His case goes to trial next week.

Read Part 2: Buried Secrets and
Part 3: Quest for Redemption

Part 1: Oil, Lies, and Videotape

I rolled to a stop and cut the engine. John Bolenbaugh leaned forward in the passenger seat and surveyed the scene. "We can walk over there," he said, and we stepped out onto a gravel track overlooking a marshy bottomland behind Sheet Metal Workers Local 7 in Marshall, Michigan. The town’s water tower sprouted on the horizon behind us, and ahead, in the distance, we could just make out the beeping of backup warnings and the rumble of diesel engines. We unloaded Bolenbaugh’s ubiquitous supplies -- a rake, a digital video camera, the day’s newspaper, and a pair of surgical gloves -- and set out across the soggy ground. As we tromped to the edge of a wide pond, we could see a line of blaze-orange temporary fencing and, on the other side, a crew on track excavators and wheel-loaders digging out nearby Talmadge Creek. At the water’s edge, Bolenbaugh switched on his camera. It was late November 2011, just before Thanksgiving, and the crisp air carried the first hints of winter -- but Bolenbaugh, without pause or warning or a single thought for the cold, waded out knee-deep into the pond.

Editor's Note: About this series

Almost every day for more than a year, this had been Bolenbaugh’s daily activity -- shooting video of the slow-going cleanup of one of the worst inland oil spills in American history. And on that day he wanted me to see "ground zero," the exact spot where, in late July 2010, an underground pipeline owned by Canadian-based Enbridge, Inc., ruptured and spilled more than a million gallons of crude derived from the Alberta tar sands -- enough to flow out of this pond into the distant creek and on to the Kalamazoo River. A former cleanup worker himself, Bolenbaugh was fired in October 2010 by Enbridge contractor SET Environmental, because, Bolenbaugh says, he refused to follow top-down instructions to cover up oil.

His whistleblower lawsuit, which accuses SET of wrongful dismissal, goes to trial on Wednesday. In pretrial motions, SET attorneys moved to exclude any mention of an oil coverup, but James C. Kingsley, judge for the 37th Circuit Court of Michigan, ruled that the question is fundamental to Bolenbaugh’s whistleblower claim -- and, therefore, a matter for the jury to decide.

Thus, this case could provide a judgment -- perhaps the only official judgment, since federal regulators have largely looked the other way -- on Enbridge’s handling of the whole oil spill. That determination is about far more than legal fingerpointing. Roughly 20 percent of America's crude oil, according to the U.S. Interior Department, is now imported from Canada, and most of that is derived from tar sands. With the national jobless rate still high, more and more Americans are willing to accept the environmental and health risks associated with pipelines that carry tar sands crude. And as oil prices continue climbing, Canadian companies are racing to cash in. Enbridge is poised to become the largest transporter of tar sands crude in the country, and its top competitor TransCanada is seeking to build the controversial $7 billion, 1,700-mile Keystone XL pipeline across the Great Plains to refineries on the Texas Gulf Coast.

As people in Nebraska and elsewhere fought to stop the Keystone XL project last year, staging mass protests at the White House and forcing President Obama to delay a decision until after the November election, they looked toward the Michigan spill as a cautionary tale about what could happen to their own communities if a tar sands pipeline failed and polluted their land and water with vast quantities of chemical-laden crude. With so much at stake, it’s imperative to know: are Enbridge’s practices hazardous, incompetent, and laced with deception -- or not? And with the safety of tar sands in general increasingly at the center of our national energy debate, what happens in a Battle Creek courtroom this month could prove a defining moment -- not only for election-year politics but our larger energy future.

Bolenbaugh, for his part, has been single-minded about proving his claims. He has doggedly patrolled sites already certified as clean by Enbridge and the Environmental Protection Agency, regardless of whether the land is public, owned by Enbridge, or otherwise privately held. Enbridge swore out a warrant for trespassing against Bolenbaugh shortly before I met him in November -- and had him taken into custody by a county sheriff’s deputy immediately following the hearing on December 12 at which Judge Kingsley decided there was enough evidence for Bolenbaugh’s lawsuit to proceed. (The trespassing charge was eventually dismissed.)

But what has drawn the most attention from Enbridge has been Bolenbaugh’s uncanny ability to win the trust of private landowners who fear that officials from the oil giant are lying to them; his access to their land has allowed Bolenbaugh to mount a one-man watchdog campaign via his YouTube channel. Armed with a digital camera and a machine-gun delivery of baiting, rhetorical questions, usually directed at cleanup workers ("What do you think of Enbridge covering up oil? Who do you think should pay for killing our fish and poisoning our river?"), Bolenbaugh’s caustic style has made him a divisive figure among locals -- a selfless hero to some, a self-aggrandizing crusader to others. Enbridge claims that Bolenbaugh has had no effect on its cleanup efforts, but his picture (square-jawed with wild blue eyes and wearing an orange vest) hung for months inside the security box at the entrance to the Enbridge staging site under the heading: "All Personnel Be Alert."

Whistleblower ebookEven after countless conversations, I sometimes find it hard to tell whether Bolenbaugh is a legitimate whistleblower who refuses to look the other way or, as his critics deride him, a wack-job whose motor-mouth finally got him fired. Is he more focused on holding Enbridge to account for its crimes or atoning for his own criminal history -- a dark past he would just as soon not talk about?

And yet, what he has captured on video is undeniable. In one YouTube post after another -- more than a hundred of them on his channel now, most between 10 and 30 minutes long -- Bolenbaugh wades into the waterways around Marshall and Battle Creek, rakes the bottom or upturns the bed with a shovel, and then runs his gloved hand through the chemical sheen. And again and again, he lifts his hand to the camera, the latex tarred with the sticky slime of extra heavy crude.

On that November day, as he waded out into the pond behind the Sheet Metal Workers shed, Bolenbaugh began to narrate like a well-practiced tour guide. "See all this water? At one time this was 100 percent pure tar sands oil." He pointed out the rings on surrounding trees to mark the high-point of the flow. "It had to be so high to be able to reach the creek," he said. "See where those trees are? That’s where it entered the creek and went all the way to the Kalamazoo River and then another 40 miles at least." Enbridge and the EPA had earmarked this site as 100 percent cleared of oil months before, but as Bolenbaugh tromped through the water, stirring up the bottom, the surface began to swirl with a rainbow luster, and the air filled with a sharp chemical smell. The glove test was a formality -- but Bolenbaugh skimmed the surface anyway, flexing his fist as if he were squeezing a stress ball, and came up with a coated palm.

He held his hand out to show me. "It’s oil," he said.

* * *

Just before 9:30 p.m. on July 25, 2010, the Calhoun County Consolidated Dispatch Authority in Marshall, Michigan, began receiving phone calls complaining of an overpowering smell near Talmadge Creek. The first caller reported a "very, very, very strong odor of either natural gas or maybe crude oil." Emergency dispatchers believed that it could be a pressure release from a nearby relay station for a local natural gas line. But within half an hour, the smell near the corner of Division Drive and Brooks Drive, just north of Talmadge Creek, was choking.

"I called a few minutes ago about the gas fumes on Division Drive," one woman told the 911 dispatcher. "They’re getting much stronger. Is there any word? Is it safe? I mean, our house is, like, asphyxiated with the gas smell."

A Note About Sources

This story is based on extensive on-the-ground reporting in western Michigan, including more than 100 hours of interviews with people affected by the spill or involved in the cleanup effort. In addition, the reporting is supported by thousands of pages of documents, including civil depositions, congressional testimony, 911 transcripts, and government reports, some of which OnEarth has made available for public review via Document Cloud. Enbridge, Inc., and its employees and contractors did not respond to questions and interview requests for this story posed in person and via email.

Three firefighters were sent to the area and agreed that the strange odor was unmistakable -- but the gas company insisted that there was nothing wrong with its lines, and the firefighters’ monitoring equipment showed no evidence of natural gas. "It’s a different smell than what natural gas is," one of the firemen phoned in. "It almost smells like crude oil."

What the firemen on the scene didn’t know was that they were standing directly above a portion of Enbridge’s 6B pipeline, which had been switched off and was, at that moment, in the middle of what the company says was a routine pressure test. Line 6B is part of a massive international pipeline complex, connecting the 1,400-mile Enbridge System, originating in the Alberta tar sands, to the 1,900-mile Lakehead System, which stretches from the border near Neche, North Dakota, to refineries ringing the Great Lakes. The 6B portion -- reaching from the terminus of 6A in Griffith, Indiana, to one of the company’s refineries in Sarnia, Ontario -- is also among the most troubled sections in our nation’s gopher-like system of pipelines.

Manufactured by an Italian company in 1969 and repurposed by Enbridge in 2005 to carry heavier-grade tar sands oil, Line 6B had displayed "metal loss" during a magnetic flux leakage test conducted in October 2007 at the area that would eventually rupture. That assessment also found 140 anomalies along the line that were severe enough that they fell under federal regulations requiring pipeline operators to make repairs within 180 days or reduce pressure on the line. An additional 250 such anomalies were found when the section was reassessed using ultrasonic technology in June 2009. Enbridge made 26 repairs following the 2007 test, and 35 more after the 2009 assessment, but when Line 6B finally burst in Marshall in July 2010, 329 of those anomalies had yet to be addressed. In fact, Enbridge had decided the required fixes were so extensive that on July 15, 2010 -- just ten days before the Talmadge Creek spill -- Enbridge had requested additional time from the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration, the division of the Department of Transportation that oversees the nation's oil lines, in order to submit what the DOT described as "an alternative remediation plan for metal loss anomalies found in this survey to consider pipe replacement instead of repair."

Unfortunately, the firemen looking for the source of the gas smell had no idea that the aging Enbridge pipe was in such dire condition, so they headed back to their vehicles. "After checking the area," according to the Marshall Township Fire Department incident report filed that night, the firefighters "came in contact with an Enbridge employee who agreed that it smelled more like a petroleum smell and that he thought it was coming from the Clark Oil holding tanks. One of the firefighters made the comment that it smelled more like crude oil and the Enbridge employee then stated he still thought it was coming from Clark Oil." Enbridge President and CEO Patrick Daniel later denied this report -- issuing the plain statement: "There were no Enbridge employees on the site.” (The National Transportation Safety Board, which investigated the spill, later stated that the firefighters had mistaken a local gas utility worker for an Enbridge employee). Either way, it seems clear that Line 6B had ruptured during the shutdown for the pressure test and was leaking crude into the marsh behind the Sheet Metal Workers shed, but, unable to find any signs of a spill in the darkness, the firefighters cleared the area and returned to the stationhouse.

Shortly after 4 a.m. on Monday, July 26, Enbridge reopened the valves on 6B. An alarm sounded in the control room in Edmonton, Canada, indicating a flow imbalance between the Marshall station and the Griffith station: the level of oil at one end of the pipe didn’t match the level at the other end. Instead of shutting down the pipe, a company analyst, convinced this had to be a bubble in the flow, decided to add pressure from another pump station at Mendon. When that didn’t work, the line was shut down.

The elaborate patchwork of pipelines in North America is made up of varying gauges of pipe, carries crudes of differing viscosity, and runs at inconsistent angles. To keep everything moving evenly and in the right direction, pump stations regulate flow. Low viscosity light crude oil surges easily through almost any gauge pipe, so there is little problem with stopping and starting the flow. But tar sands crude must be chemically diluted just to reduce the viscosity enough to make it move through the pipe. Stopping the flow creates "column separations" -- gaps in the tube -- that must be surmounted by applying additional pressure.

In a group discussion just after 6:30 a.m., the control center shift lead and the pipeline controller agreed with the analyst that the shutdown had caused just such a bubble in the pipe, and they simply didn’t have enough pressure to overcome it. No one seems to have floated the possibility that pressure was dropping in the pipe for a simpler reason -- a hole -- much less that increased pressure would send thousands of gallons of oil gushing through. So, at 7:10 a.m., the line was started once again, and more and more pump stations were brought online, pushing the flow harder and harder.

image of Ted Genoways
Ted Genoways, OnEarth's editor-at-large, is the author of The Chain: Farm, Factory, and the Fate of Our Food (HarperCollins, online at, an examination of Hormel Foods and the great recession. The recipient of a 2010 Guggenheim fe... READ MORE >
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