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The Whistleblower, Part 3

John Bolenbaugh Michigan oil spill coverup
John Bolenbaugh, video camera in hand, stands near the spot on the Kalamazoo River where he says he was ordered to cover over tar sands crude with grass clippings to conceal it from EPA inspectors. His lawsuit, alleging that he was fired by an Enbridge contractor for refusing to follow those instructions, goes to trial next week.
His secret shame revealed, a fired oil spill cleanup worker continues his campaign to prove that a pipeline company covered up tar sands crude

Read Part 1: Oil, Lies, and Videotape and Part 2: Buried Secrets

Part 3: Quest for Redemption

It was almost nine o’clock on a Sunday night, late November, by the time John Bolenbaugh and I sat down to dinner at a sprawling Chinese buffet joint on the southern edge of Battle Creek, Michigan. We had attended a marathon informational meeting for people who lived along the 40-mile stretch of the Kalamazoo River, polluted by the July 2010 spill of more than a million gallons of tar sands-derived crude. In the cavernous Kellogg Auditorium -- its endless rows of bleacher seats dotted with worried faces -- Lansing-based attorney Mike O’Briant had told the crowd that he was bringing a lawsuit against the pipeline’s operator, Canadian-based energy colossus Enbridge, Inc., on behalf of the residents of Baker Estates trailer park in Battle Creek. Those assembled could join the next round if they, too, lived within 200 feet of the Kalamazoo River and were suffering ill health effects from the spill.

One person after another stood to attest to their headaches and seizures, their persistent coughs, the numbness and weakness in their arms and legs. They remembered how steam rose and filled the air as the heated tar sands that spewed from the ruptured pipeline passed through the cold river water, how they had worried what poisons that fog might have carried, and how representatives from Enbridge had come around with Wal-Mart air filters for anyone willing to sign away their rights to sue. And they swore that a thick layer of oil still coated the bottomlands behind their trailers, poisoning trees and wildlife -- and killing, too, they feared, the residents of Baker Estates.

Editor's Note: About this series

When the meeting was over, O’Briant told everyone they could leave -- but, if they wanted to stay, Bolenbaugh was going to show a video. O’Briant officially disavowed any relationship with Bolenbaugh, but the fired cleanup worker had asked to show this video, and O’Briant agreed. Bolenbaugh then projected onto a rickety screen a sequence of highlights from his year of documenting what he calls a coordinated coverup by Enbridge and its contractors. He told the crowd, once again, how he had been wrongfully terminated for threatening to go to the EPA and the news media with his accounts of the slipshod cleanup.

At long last, his whistleblower case goes to trial in a state courtroom next week. With the safety of tar sands taking center stage in of our national energy debate, the verdict could be a precedent-setting moment, but what the jury decides will turn on a basic 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, or is John Bolenbaugh -- a man with a checkered past and overwhelming desire for redemption -- seeing corruption where none exists?

The crowd of 40 or so sick and worried residents of Battle Creek assembled at Kellogg Auditorium that night saw Bolenbaugh in much simpler terms: they were desperate, hoping for any helping hand, and Bolenbaugh was willing to listen to their stories. After his video concluded, Bolenbaugh agreed to go to the home of a woman whose back door sat just feet from the river; she worried that the stains spreading out from the cracks in her foundation and across the walls of her basement were oil residue or chemicals. We went with her down her creaking cellar stairs to see, and, no, Bolenbaugh reassured her, that was not oil, there was nothing to worry about. She hugged him and thanked him with relief.

Only after all that was done did Bolenbaugh lead me through the streets of Battle Creek -- past the Kellogg cereal factory, past the gun shop with its four-foot pistol aimed toward the street, past the lines of FOR SALE signs stuck in the yards of foreclosed homes, past a city so down on its luck that it barely remembers what good times look like. For his part, Bolenbaugh has been out of work for more than a year, surviving on unemployment and what he can eke out from the sale of t-shirts emblazoned with the words MICHIGAN OIL COVER UP. He tore up a $2,500 check from O'Briant's law firm, insisting that he wasn't helping people just to turn a buck.

Whistleblower ebookBut his principles had forced Bolenbaugh to spend months eating off the dollar menu at the drive-thru, so when I offered to buy dinner, he suggested this all-you-can-eat buffet, even though it stands on the opposite side of town. Once inside, he sat down in back of the restaurant, away from the crowd, carrying a plate in each hand -- one piled high with chicken wings and noodles, the other with fresh fruit. And he wanted to go back for seconds before dredging up the memory of that press briefing in November 2010, when he stood before a room of reporters and concerned citizens and admitted to being a sex offender.

“You want to know about my past?” he asked, sitting back down across from me. Then he checked to make sure the red light of my recorder was on. He didn’t want to have to go over this twice.

“I went back to college at 26,” he began. This was after his time in the Persian Gulf, after his bronze star in the Navy. He didn’t want me to forget all of that. “I had a threesome with two girls that said they were of legal age. They said they were 17. In Michigan, 16 is legal. And they weren’t; they were underage. Six days later the mom found out that the daughter was hanging out at parties, wanted to know who she slept with. They came and questioned me. I said, ‘Legal age is 16. Why are you even here?’ They said they’re not 16. I started crying, said I wanted an attorney.”

But Bolenbaugh didn’t listen to his counsel. He refused to take a plea bargain that would have reduced his sentence by 80 percent, insisting that no jury would convict him when he had been misled. “So I went to trial, and I lost,” he said. He was convicted in February 2002 and spent the next six years and two months in the Michigan State Correctional system before being released on parole in April 2008. He brags even about this: he was never written up once, he will tell you, never given a single demerit in all those years behind bars. He wants you to know that he was the model prisoner, that he designed a rocking horse for his fellow inmates to build and place in Habitat for Humanity homes. He never denied his crime and did his time. But upon release, and to this day, George John Bolenbaugh III, in accordance with state law, must register as a sex offender, guilty of criminal sexual conduct in the third degree. Even after more than a hundred YouTube videos and two dozen media interviews, it still comes up near the top of a Google search on his name: two counts of contact with a minor between the ages of 13 and 15.

But Enbridge, if indeed the company intended to reveal this secret about Bolenbaugh at that EPA meeting in 2010, seems to have committed a tactical error. This prison term is Bolenbaugh’s great shame, it’s true -- but it is also what drives him.

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.

We may like to believe in the righteous opponent of injustice, but whistleblowing is almost always dirty business. Often the whistleblower has been passed over for promotion or feuded with a boss or just feels anonymous in the face of some corporate giant and sees a way to forge an identity and make a name for himself. Bolenbaugh, whatever his beef with his former employers and his belief that they were covering up oil, is also a man hoping to balance the scales of his reputation, to assure -- by his own description -- that his obituary leads with “activist” and not “sex offender.” When Bolenbaugh hired Geoffrey Fieger’s law firm in November 2010 to submit his complaint for violation of whistleblower protection laws against SET Environmental, the Enbridge contractor that fired him, Bolenbaugh told Fieger to be prepared to take the case to trial because he wasn’t going to accept a settlement. Once again, he wanted his day in court -- but Bolenbaugh still hates the idea of people knowing about his past.

“I hope you don’t write about it,” he told me, but he also acknowledged that workers for Enbridge and their contractors had been spreading this rumor for months to discredit his claims of a coverup. It was a smear campaign, he said, pure and simple. And, yet, he insisted -- and still insists -- it had all been worth it. After having declared Talmadge Creek and most of the Kalamazoo River clean, Enbridge returned to begin “ongoing remediation” in December 2010. Bolenbaugh attributes the company’s return -- and the months of cleanup since -- to his bulldogging. If he hadn’t been trying to clear his name, he might never have been so persistent.

He chewed all this over a moment, then shrugged finally. “It’s good that everyone know the truth.”

* * *

For all this self-revelation, if you spend any amount of time with John Bolenbaugh, you have to ask yourself: is this guy for real? Can you trust the word of an ex-con -- a sex offender -- who, by his own admission, sometimes stretches facts in service of what he regards as a larger truth? Driving along country roads, he is constantly checking the rearview mirror for anyone following behind. It’s hard not to wonder if he isn’t paranoid -- or, worse yet, suffering from delusions of grandeur. Could it be that this man, wracked with guilt, wanted so badly to redeem himself that he started seeing injustice, simply in hopes of being the one to set it right?

Certainly these were my nagging doubts as Bolenbaugh chattered on about being the next Erin Brockovich, about how maybe they’ll make a movie of his life some day. When I saw him at the big protest against the proposed Keystone XL tar sands pipeline at the White House last November, where Bolenbaugh had talked his way into a speaking spot on the program, he said that the producers of the Oscar-winning dolphin slaughter documentary, The Cove, had approached him earlier that day. But he wasn’t about to turn over hundreds of hours of video, just so someone else could win an Academy Award. And yet, every time you think Bolenbaugh is just another self-promoter or a crackpot, you’re reminded of the evidence.

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 >
We have all made mistakes, some greater than others. But facts are facts. John is a hero in my eyes and I hope he wins his case.
Thank you for given me a second chance now I want to help others. Your comment makes me feel great.
I am Johns sister. I see my brother said I was married at 14. I have always been confused by the law. I read in here the huge deal on him being in prison. He was convicted of having sexual intercourse with consensual girls age 16. Its so interesting that the courts married me just turning fourteen. To a much older man. I had three children by 16.It is called a secret marriage. Which means it was a secret. My marriage was not to be published in the papers or be known about. I lived a very rough life with an abusive husband. Left at 19 with my children. I did have to pay for a divorce which I feel like it was a secret why should I pay. Sorry some humor. With alot of hard work. Working through what the state took from me. I turned and looked at my brother just a couple of years later I think it was three yrs later. The same state that took my life at 14. Took his life for just the opposite reason girls that were sixteen. While he was getting sentenced I was hiding from my husband in a safe place with my kids. Just did not seem right. This is proof that it is not our lives or desicions its up to the State to decide which day they choose to make laws that involve their own oppinions. Its called loopholes I guess. Which side do I feel is right. I have my oppinions. Well I guess it just does not matter. You have to live the hand dealt to you.... No choice but to let the State decide. Go on pick up the pieces. Do what you believe is right from wrong for yourself... I say he got 6 years for 16 yr olds.If he was so wrong. Will someone get justice for me then. Please!!!! Put the people that married me in prison..I had to be married. I didnt have sex one time for fun. I was stuck in a marriage and three kids by 16. Should have I had a license at 14 to make them desicions. I think If I had been older and wiser I would had made different desicions. Although I was not and hard work paid off. I have great children noone died. I made it. I'm thankful and very fortunate now. On the oil issue I wont give much of an oppinion. Besides If you get paid to do this. Why not do it. Just hire people that wants to Get er Done. HaHa Pipeliner terms. RIGHT!!!!! Please don't hire a Food preparer that brings me expired food that looks good. Due to the fact I need to eat. I don't want to end up sick and wonder why....The thought that food preparer made a good penney doing that... Do what your paid for people.. Its good for everyone.. Solves any problems or concerns on whos in this and whats the reasons. There won't be a story.
I love you sis.