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The Whistleblower, Part 2

John Bolenbaugh films oil after the Enbridge spill
Convicted felon John Bolenbaugh has emerged as a dogged, unlikely champion for those whose lives were damaged by Enbridge's under-reported 2010 oil spill in western Michigan. Bolenbaugh, seen here knee-deep in the still-oily Kalamazoo River, obsessively filmed evidence of oil contamination and botched cleanups in woods, streams, and yards that Enbridge claimed were entirely clear of oil.
A fired oil spill cleanup worker turns community crusader, but revelations about his past threaten to destroy his reputation -- and his credibility

Read Part 1: Oil, Lies, and Videotape and Part 3: Quest for Redemption

Part 2: Buried Secrets


Dark clouds were rolling in -- thunder cracking in the distance -- by the time John Bolenbaugh and I broke through the pines on the north edge of Jim Monaweck’s property and started down the bank toward Talmadge Creek. It was mid-March, some 20 months since the night in July 2010 when an underground pipeline owned by the Canadian energy goliath Enbridge, Inc., spilled more than a million gallons of tar sands-derived crude into this tributary of the Kalamazoo River. Enbridge and the Environmental Protection Agency had declared this property clear of oil in September 2010, a mere two months later. But with the disaster’s two-year anniversary approaching, evidence of an ongoing cleanup was everywhere: the water’s edge was still lined with black plastic silt fencing reinforced with coconut mats, the creek bed itself was newly scraped and filled with fresh pea gravel, and the hillsides were piled with straw to absorb the mud churned up by the recent work of track excavators. Monaweck stood on the far side of the creek, wearing rubber knee-boots and raking out clods of dirt. Another clap of thunder rumbled.

"Gonna rain, ain’t it?" Monaweck called out as we approached.

"Yeah, about ready to," Bolenbaugh replied. Monaweck is one of the dozens of residents with homes along these waterways whom Bolenbaugh has interviewed for his YouTube channel since being fired by SET Environmental in October 2010 -- a wrongful termination, Bolenbaugh says, for threatening to go to the EPA and the news media with his accounts of Enbridge’s botched cleanup. After his firing, Bolenbaugh distributed hundreds of fliers, going door-to-door along more than 40 miles of Talmadge Creek and the Kalamazoo River, asking residents if they had seen oil covered up on their land, all in an effort to prove the truth of his claims. Bolenbaugh’s whistleblower case goes to trial in a state courtroom in neighboring Battle Creek next week, and its outcome will hinge on a simple but fateful question: did Enbridge and its contractors engage in a willful coverup in the wake of one of the worst inland oil spills in U.S. history?

"Guess what they did in court the other day with me," Bolenbaugh called out to Monaweck. "They filed a motion that we couldn’t talk about the Enbridge or SET oil coverup in any way, and we can’t show any videos to the jury. And the judge said, 'Are you joking?'"

"What judge you get -- Kingsley?" Monaweck asked.

"Yeah, he said we can show the videos, and we can talk about the coverup. But they tried that," Bolenbaugh said, disbelief, even at this stage, creeping into his voice. "They was actually hoping that the judge would say, 'Nope, you can’t show nothing,' which is the heart of my case, you know?"

Editor's Note: About this series

Monaweck has had his own legal troubles with Enbridge -- and that’s why Bolenbaugh brought me out to meet him. But at the moment, Monaweck was focused on the chaos the company continued to make of his property. He smoothed out a little more dirt, then leaned on his rake.

"What a mess," he said.

Monaweck’s land lies about a mile from where the rupture occurred, and the lower part of his waterfront acreage, just down the hillside from his stately brick home, was deluged with tar sands crude. But when, on August 3, 2010, Enbridge held a town hall meeting for all residents in the "red zone" (which Enbridge defined as within 200 feet on either side of Talmadge Creek or the affected parts of the Kalamazoo River), he was turned away. Tucked back amid the pines, his house had been missed by Enbridge canvassers, so Monaweck wasn’t on their master list -- and no amount of arguing could get him in. He had to hear second-hand that CEO Patrick Daniel had announced that Enbridge would buy any house in the red zone, that the company would pay list price for houses that were already on the market and pre-spill appraisal for anyone else who wished to sell and move out. Getting locked out seems to have hardened Monaweck’s stance against Enbridge -- and their relationship has been increasingly adversarial ever since.

Monaweck told me that he believed Enbridge’s purchase of homes along Talmadge Creek and the Kalamazoo River was about more than having ready access to people’s land for clean-up purposes; they wanted to be sure there were fewer landowners to complain. Enbridge’s Daniel insisted that this was about community outreach, not an attempt to conceal anything. "Enbridge does not want people in that directly affected area to be financially disadvantaged by the spill," he explained, but Monaweck told me that Enbridge’s offer on his home was less than the cash and sweat he had put into building his self-described "dream house." His neighbors, however, for a variety of reasons, didn’t -- or couldn’t -- hold out as long as he had. By the time John Bolenbaugh was going door-to-door with fliers in mid-October 2010, Enbridge had already purchased 28 homes along Talmadge Creek and the Kalamazoo River -- and had ordered appraisals for an additional 105 homes in preparation for entering bids.

Monaweck refused Enbridge’s offer. Instead, he told me, he decided to stay and make sure that the company cleaned up all of the oil its contractors had covered up on his property. He knew, for example, of a thick layer of crude buried by workers along a turn in the creek where he still has a footbridge, another layer covered over in the next bend. "I waited to see if they would dig it," he told me, "but they never did."

Whistleblower ebookIn September 2010, Enbridge announced that the cleanup on Talmadge Creek was nearly complete. But Monaweck knew his property was far from spotless, and he called the Enbridge hotline. "I got oil on my property," he remembers telling the operator.

"No," the operator said, "they cleaned everything up."

"No, you haven’t."

"How do you know?" the operator asked.

"The question is, 'How do you know?'" Monaweck remembers responding. "Because I know -- I know for a fact."

Soon after, a work crew arrived at Monaweck’s property, asking where he had seen oil being buried. He pointed out the spot. "So they start digging it up," he told me, "and I’m telling you, you couldn’t believe the oil."

* * *

Bolenbaugh pointed toward a dirt turnout. "You can park in there," he said. I pulled off East River Road, and we started on foot through the woods. Bolenbaugh threaded through dense thicket to the marshy river-bottom. A narrow brook meandered along the foot of the hillside toward a pair of islands nestled in the crook of a hairpin oxbow in the river. As we tightroped over the brook on a downed tree, I could already see crude clotting the leaves, the telltale sheen on the water. But Bolenbaugh methodically set up his tripod and video camera, got out his newspaper and GPS to mark the date and coordinates, and began raking the brook-bottom. The water swirled with oil sheen.

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.

"So I’m just going to show you: clean glove," he said, stretching his white-gloved hand before the lens, then he reached in, skimming the surface. "Just going to come through here and collect the oil -- "

He took one step into the creek and slid down into the muck up to his knee.

"I’m sinking in," he muttered, keeping his non-stop, chattering monologue going for his imagined viewer. "Getting all wet and yucky."

Through the trees, we heard the rumble of a diesel engine and saw a red Ford 4x4 prowl back and forth down River Road. Bolenbaugh said the truck belonged to a member of Enbridge’s security team. Somebody had phoned us in. "Follow me," Bolenbaugh said and took off through the trees.

The woods belong to Enbridge, purchased some time after Bolenbaugh’s firing -- even though the land was already officially certified as clean by the EPA and Enbridge. Bolenbaugh claims that the company bought the land, which in early September 2010 had been his worksite, because of all the trouble the spot caused for Enbridge. Undocumented workers for one contractor were found cleaning up under unsafe conditions, and Bolenbaugh says that his crew and another were ordered to cover up oil by other contractors not far away -- all so that the Canadian pipeline company could meet the EPA’s September 27 cleanup deadline and be allowed to restart the ruptured 6B pipeline, resuming the flow of nearly 300,000 barrels per day of diluted bitumen from the northern Alberta tar sands fields to Midwestern U.S. refineries. (And resuming the flow of $8.7 million a day into the company’s coffers.)

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 www.tedgenoways.com), an examination of Hormel Foods and the great recession. The recipient of a 2010 Guggenheim fe... READ MORE >