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.
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.
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."
Even 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."
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.
Meanwhile, on the ground in Michigan, emergency lines were swamped with calls. Morning commuters as far away as Battle Creek were reporting a terrible smell. One caller told 911 that "the whole downtown is smelling like gas." Finally, at 9:49 a.m., the control center in Edmonton asked a local technician to visit the pump station. According to documents Enbridge supplied to the National Transportation Safety Board, the technician found no signs of trouble, prompting a controller in Edmonton to call the regional manager to ask about population density around the Marshall station. They had begun to suspect a leak, but if there was a spill, wouldn’t their technician smell something, and wouldn’t phone lines be jammed?
Less than two hours later, the control center received a call from Consumers Energy, the local gas company. The utility’s employees were onsite near the pump station, responding to 48 customer complaints on their own help line alone. The pipeline controller closed block valves upstream and downstream of Marshall, and the Enbridge regional manager dispatched a technician to investigate the specific area. But at 11:39 a.m., it was a technician from Consumers Energy who phoned 911. "Hi, I need to report that you have a crude oil leak in your city," he said. When the dispatcher asked where, he replied, "Division Road in Marshall. We've been called out for a slew of gas leaks; our service people have found a creek filled with black oil."
* * *
Even after the report that Talmadge Creek was brimming with crude, even after an Enbridge worker phoned to confirm, it took engineers at the control room in Edmonton nearly two hours to call the National Response Center, the U.S. government's communications headquarters for reporting "all hazardous substance and oil spills." It was close to 1:30 p.m., some 16 hours after the first 911 calls, when an Enbridge controller finally told a hotline worker that there had been a leak in Marshall. Containment booms had already been deployed on Talmadge Creek, but the size of the release -- Enbridge’s analysts soon estimated 819,000 gallons -- meant that the black sludge had already pushed two miles downstream to the confluence with the Kalamazoo River.
For reasons still unclear, Enbridge denied that the spill was diluted bitumen derived from tar sands, implying that 6B had leaked ordinary crude oil. Indeed, Enbridge’s CEO Patrick Daniel continued to deny that the pipeline had carried tar sands oil even when pressed by an OnEarth reporter several days after the spill (see "Michigan Oil Spill Increases Concern Over Tar Sands Pipelines," August 6, 2010). Only amid media reports that the company was covering up the nature of the release did Enbridge executives come clean.
The distinction between standard crude and tar sands oil is more than mere semantics; it determines everything about how proper cleanup is undertaken. Most crude oil floats, so its spread can be halted with containment booms -- essentially a chain of buoys with a weighted, plastic skirt hanging below the surface to create a barrier. But bitumen derived from tar sands is heavier than most ordinary crude. According to Alberta government authorities, it has a density greater than 960 kilograms per cubic meter; at approximately 1,000 kilograms per cubic meter, oil is classified as "extra heavy" because it no longer floats. Enbridge insists that its bitumen is "upgraded" to the weight of light crude, but now, after more than a year and a half of cleanup, the company can no longer deny that in a spill like the one in Michigan, unknown amounts of submerged oil sink to the bottom of waterways or hang suspended below the level of the skirting on standard containment booms and sweep downstream on the current.
Also, ordinary crude oil has relatively low viscosity, so it flows easily through a pipeline. Tar sands bitumen requires heating and chemical treatment to make it flow. According to Enbridge’s own Material Safety Data Sheet, its crudes contain levels of n-hexane, a hydrocarbon that can cause peripheral nerve damage (the onset of which "may be delayed for several months to a year"), and benzene, which is known to cause leukemia. Other chemicals include hydrogen sulfide, which causes eye and respiratory irritation even in low doses, and toluene, which can cause liver and kidney damage. All of these chemicals are colorless, tasteless, and spread easily in flowing water.
In September 2010, Michelle BarlondSmith, a resident of Baker Estates, a mobile home park six miles downriver from the spill site, testified before a congressional hearing in Washington, D.C., that she knew two children, ages 3 and 8, who had been hospitalized with hydrocarbon poisoning after the spill. She described how the Health Department had arranged meetings at the trailer park, but representatives from Enbridge were no-shows. When Enbridge officials finally did arrive, they came at night, spoke to residents individually, and assured them that they would be fine if they simply set up an air filter in their trailers. In return for providing a filter -- and a few dollars for damages (a little for lost gardens, a little more for sick children or pets) -- these men produced a form for residents to sign, waiving their rights to future claims against Enbridge. "Many of my neighbors," BarlondSmith testified, "believed that this would keep them from becoming ill and they signed waivers." But the air filters turned out to be off-the-shelf purifiers purchased by Enbridge employees from the local Wal-Mart.
It’s clear today that the initial spill response undertaken by Enbridge on Talmadge Creek and the Kalamazoo River was not appropriate for containing submerged oil, much less the toxic chemicals diluting it. To make matters worse, Enbridge’s estimate of 819,000 gallons severely underreported the release. According to EPA data issued on March 7, 2012, about 1.15 million gallons have been recovered -- and the cleanup is expected to continue through the summer. In short, Enbridge underestimated the spill by nearly a third, so the first wave of cleanup workers summoned to Michigan was severely outmatched.
* * *
John Bolenbaugh was away in Florida when the rupture occurred. A representative from Construction Laborers’ Local 355 in Battle Creek called to tell him he was needed for work back home on Monday morning, so Bolenbaugh made his way up to Michigan that weekend. When he arrived, he found his mother's house -- where he also lived at the time, renting out the downstairs -- was overpowered by oil fumes, though it sat twenty miles downriver. Fish and water birds were dead. Even the mosquitoes had been driven away by chemicals in the water. Still, Bolenbaugh saw an opportunity. He had worked with his brother the year before for Extreme Environmental, first on the Rockies Express Pipeline in Ohio and later in South Dakota, taking out fence-lines and rebuilding them to make way for TransCanada’s Keystone 1 pipeline. The Enbridge spill might mean an opportunity for a man with his experience to move up.
Bolenbaugh quickly landed a job through the union with Roberts Pipeline, an Indiana-based company contracted to set up staging areas for the heavy equipment, arriving by truck and by rail, to suck up and truck away oil. Bolenbaugh helped lay down the gravel for the yard, cleared areas for receiving container loads of supplies, and then was put in charge of signing out equipment -- from containment boom to shovels to insect repellent. "Whatever you needed," Bolenbaugh told me. "I was the guy you came to."
On July 30, four days after initial reports, Enbridge announced that the spill had been contained, and the crew excavating the leak site unearthed the damaged section of pipe. A seam had ruptured in a classic "fish mouth" -- pursing outward from extreme internal pressure, like a pair of pouty lips. The crew began work to reconnect the pipeline and on August 9 -- just two weeks after the spill -- Enbridge requested permission from the Pipeline Administration to restart 6B. At a gathering of a hundred concerned residents, John Porcari, deputy secretary of the U.S. Department of Transportation, announced that the request had been denied. "We’re not agreeing at this point on a restart plan," he said, adding that 6B might take months if not years to reopen. If Enbridge wanted to restart the flow, it first needed to present a plan to ensure such a spill never happened again.
In late August, Bolenbaugh was made the temporary yard-boss of the staging area. His Enbridge supervisor had to go back to Canada, and -- while the new supervisor and a Canadian crew were en route -- it was his job to run things. "I was given the top position of the whole entire yard. I mean, my jaw was down to here," Bolenbaugh told me, pantomiming his surprise. "But the union people didn’t like that, because there’s union foremen, and I skipped above everybody. I was now the top guy in charge of my bosses."
Some of Bolenbaugh’s co-workers later maintained that it was not jealousy that got under their skin but Bolenbaugh’s braggadocio. He never let anyone forget that he had wrestled in high school and college, and then served in the Navy for two years in the Persian Gulf, earning a bronze star and leaving with an honorable discharge. But his supervisor remembered that Bolenbaugh’s stories seemed to grow and grow until they were "impossible to believe, ranging from stories about captaining air craft carriers at 18 to being ranked the toughest man in America at one point in time. Just about any topic of conversation brought up, John claimed to be . . . the best at it in the world." Even his claim of being yard boss, co-workers say, is exaggerated. After all, he was on temporary status; as soon as the team arrived from Canada, Bolenbaugh was laid off with the rest of the local crew.
* * *
Not long after he was laid off from Roberts, Bolenbaugh called Andy Saylor, a project manager at SET Environmental whom he had met while working in the yard. Saylor told Bolenbaugh that SET, another Enbridge contractor headquartered near Chicago, had openings, and the company soon hired him on. Bolenbaugh was reclassified as a cleanup technician and assigned to the Shoreline Cleanup Assessment Team, or SCAT.
One day when his crew was hauling up oil-soaked logs and transporting them to the EPA dumpsite, Bolenbaugh’s overloaded airboat started taking on water, so the crew supervisor ordered Bolenbaugh and his co-workers to dump the load on the bank. At shift’s end, Bolenbaugh asked when they would return to retrieve the logs. His supervisors assured him that the second crew would clean them up the next morning, but in the morning the second crew was working alongside Bolenbaugh’s crew. Bolenbaugh says the thought of the oil-soaked logs gnawed at him. He returned later in his truck and found the logs still there; he spent two days loading the wood and hauling it out on his own. This sort of thing earned Bolenbaugh a reputation with his SET bosses -- and made him unpopular with some co-workers -- but when supervisor Shaun Dekker inquired with site managers he heard, according to his own report, "that John liked to talk to[o] much but was a hard worker."
If Bolenbaugh was making noise, he contends it was only because Enbridge -- and its many contractors -- were starting to cut corners, and the government was looking the other way. Just two weeks after John Porcari’s pronouncement that it could take years to restart 6B, the Department of Transportation reached an agreement with Enbridge. Should Enbridge promise to repair all known anomalies in 6B and a complete replacement of thousands of feet of pipe running under the St. Clair River, near Detroit, the pipeline could resume at a reduced flow on September 27. But then an investigation by the Michigan Messenger, a Kalamazoo-based alternative weekly, uncovered the employment of more than 150 undocumented workers by Hallmark Industrial, yet another Enbridge contractor. The paper also found numerous violations of OSHA and EPA guidelines on the jobsite. Enbridge was forced to fire the contractor -- and lose hundreds of workers. Still, Enbridge wasn’t about to miss the September 27 deadline. With 6B’s daily capacity at nearly 300,000 barrels, the closed-off pipe was costing the company more than $8.7 million per day.
On Monday, September 6, Jason Buford, a representative from O’Brien’s Response Management (another Houston-based contractor, specializing in crisis management) called a meeting of Bolenbaugh’s crew, just upriver from the former Hallmark site; he said that, if they were going to meet deadline now, they needed to stop wasting time with small oil-clogged areas. He directed Bolenbaugh's crew to go through the woods, thin out oily debris, and mix mud into the remaining oil so that the EPA would clear the site. Dave Hoekstra, one of Bolenbaugh’s supervisors, confirmed under oath last October that Buford "told us to spread oily debris in the woods out thinner so it would look less like there was thick oil there." Buford said they should clean up larger pockets of oil, Hoekstra recalled, but if they encountered smaller tar balls caked with twigs or leaves he wanted them "just to hit it with a rake and spread it out." (Asked in depositions about this practice, Hoekstra said, "That’s not the proper way to clean it up.")
Bolenbaugh complained to John Duncan, another supervisor for SET Environmental, asking if he was really compelled to follow the instructions of an O’Brien’s foreman. That night, Duncan called a meeting of his workers. "His exact words," Bolenbaugh told me, "were: 'If your conscience bothers you, you do not have to cover up oil.'" (Hoekstra confirmed this in depositions, but Enbridge has since issued a statement, insisting that O’Brien’s was not acting on instructions from above, as "we would never instruct a contractor to hide oil.") Bolenbaugh says this was the moment he realized he needed to document what was going on. "I knew right then that SET was doing whatever they were told to do," he recalled in a deposition. "If you felt wrong about it, don't do it, but if you could handle covering up oil and it didn't bother you, go for it."
Days later, Duncan directly instructed Bolenbaugh and a co-worker named J. T. to spread cut grass over thick oil. Bolenbaugh got out his BlackBerry and started taking pictures. It was 4:08 p.m., according to the time-stamped photos -- the end of a long day -- and Bolenbaugh says that Duncan was choosing to cover the oil rather than refresh supplies of oil-absorbing foam squares. Duncan later insisted to SET officials that he was simply trying to improvise with what he had at hand, that the grass was "a temporary fix," and he intended to return to the site to complete the cleanup the following morning.
But the next morning, when the crew did not return to the site, Bolenbaugh got angry -- and he started running his mouth. He threatened to go to the press -- to tell them what Jason Buford had instructed them to do, what Duncan had done the night before. He said he had SET supervisors on video telling him to level dirt over oil that was seeping out of an island, rather than digging out the area as they should. Line 6A, the companion pipe to 6B, had ruptured in Romeoville, Illinois, just days before -- spilling roughly 378,000 gallons of oil into the Chicago suburb, barely 40 miles from where SET is based. How would people there feel about SET covering up for Enbridge?
Somebody called SET Supervisor Andy Saylor, who texted Bolenbaugh directly to say that he was on his way from Chicago to address the situation. "I thought he was going to fire John Duncan for telling us to do an illegal activity," Bolenbaugh later remembered during depositions, but when Saylor arrived, "he yelled at me saying, 'You cannot go to the press.'"
Bolenbaugh remembers going flush in the face. He countered that he had checked company policy, and he was permitted to shoot photographs and video. Bolenbaugh says Saylor pointed a finger at him.
"One more word," Saylor said, "and you are fired."
* * *
Looming over Saylor’s confrontation with Bolenbaugh was the EPA’s September 27 cleanup deadline, and it appears that Enbridge and its contractors were feeling the pressure as it drew near. In early September, after the Michigan Messenger published its exposé on the use of undocumented workers by Hallmark Industrial, another group of workers employed by a different Enbridge contractor came forward with detailed stories of how they had been instructed to conceal oil at the same site. Workers would land on an island, they said, remove all vegetation, and then lay out absorbent pom-poms, all per EPA regulations. But once the top layer of oil was absorbed, they were instructed to rake dirt over the area to make it appear as though it had been dug out. One worker described his supervisor showing him the process step-by-step, concluding with sprinkling a thin layer of dirt on top. "He said, 'There, now they can’t see it. It is clean,'" the worker told the Messenger. Another worker described being told to cover pockets of oil with leaves and sticks. As a last step, such areas were cordoned off with caution tape to keep anyone from snooping around.
With so many questions about how Enbridge handled the initial spill and its subsequent cleanup, perhaps it's no surprise that the company and its contractors preferred to remain silent when I tried to talk to them. On several occasions while reporting this story, I approached current SET employees -- cleanup workers, site supervisors -- to ask about the spill response and Bolenbaugh's allegations, but every time they said they had been instructed not to talk. Last month, at my request, one supervisor radioed SET’s local office and was told to refer me to Jason Manshum, Enbridge’s senior advisor for community relations. I met briefly with Manshum in Marshall and scheduled an appointment with him for the next day. I told him I was hoping for someone who could take me on a site visit to Talmadge Creek. He said he would see what he could do -- but when I returned the next day, he had left town. When I asked his secretary to check his schedule to see if he had ever actually intended to meet with me, the office's mountainous security guard put down his copy of Cat Fancy, rose from behind his desk, and stood at my side until I left. I wrote a follow-up message to Manshum from the parking lot. He replied that night, nearly a month ago now, to say that he was “working on some information to e-mail you based on your general inquiries.” I never heard from him again.
After Bolenbaugh's confrontation with Andy Saylor in late September, his crew moved to a new worksite on Talmadge Creek, just upstream from where it enters the Kalamazoo River. Bolenbaugh knew that he could lose his job for speaking to anyone about what he had seen, but he also knew that 6B was set to restart the next day, with EPA approval. He stewed that the area where he knew oil had been covered up was about to be certified as clean. Bolenbaugh was thigh-deep in water, rake in hand, churning the bottom, as he told me the story. "I actually worked in this," he said. "I walked this entire, two-mile creek. In it. We had to go through -- in it -- and rake. And while we were raking, oil was gushing up." According to Bolenbaugh, he approached John Verlac, a site supervisor with the EPA, to voice his doubts. Verlac (who did not respond to my requests for an interview) said his supervisors had told him not to worry about that area, Bolenbaugh recalled.
The day after Bolenbaugh approached Verlac, on September 27, Enbridge was allowed to restart Line 6B. And no sooner had the restart commenced than Enbridge announced that cleanup on Talmadge Creek was complete and the company was now down to secondary cleanup of "residual submerged oil in nine silty locations." Mark Durno with the EPA confirmed that backfilling and restoration were beginning. Crews began planting native grass along the banks and stocking the creek with minnows.
Bolenbaugh was moved to the Ceresco Dam area -- the largest of the nine pockets of submerged oil identified by Enbridge. By then, his nit-picky reputation (and big mouth) had earned him a permanent shadow in the person of Mike Blevine, a full-time Enbridge employee. Whether in hopes of keeping him quiet or in an effort to legitimately identify unrecovered submerged oil, Blevine invited Bolenbaugh to come on site-checks before the EPA came in October to review the remaining areas identified as containing submerged oil. Bolenbaugh, however, says he was shocked by the preparations he witnessed. The day before the final assessment of Ceresco Dam, Bolenbaugh says, containment booms were still slicked by submerged oil slowly coming to the surface, so SET workers were openly instructed to replace the old oily boom in favor of new bright-white boom "to make it look nice and clean because the EPA was coming out to check it."
I asked Bolenbaugh if he was sure; the ploy seemed so obvious.
He had no doubts. "It was to deceive the EPA," he told me.
Two days later, on October 14, the EPA cleared Ceresco Dam. Bolenbaugh went to Dave Murphy, another full-time employee at Enbridge -- and spewed. He revealed that he had gone to the EPA, that he was going to the local news, that he was going to sue Enbridge himself. According to Bolenbaugh’s own court deposition, he told Murphy he had no choice. "I have to go to the EPA and [the] press again," he said, "because Ceresco Dam we just left and it’s completely full of oil and I live here and we’re not going to allow this to happen. I’m going to do something about this." Bolenbaugh says now that Murphy listened quietly, smiled at him, and said to have a nice day.
The following morning, Murphy called Shaun Dekker at SET to recount his conversation with Bolenbaugh. Dekker entered into company records that Murphy "told me John said he was going to sue Enbridge and SET" and that Murphy "never wanted to see John around again." Dekker called Bolenbaugh’s immediate supervisor, Andy Saylor, to report what he had heard. In a memo prepared for human resources that day, Saylor recorded that Bolenbaugh had been telling Murphy about video proving that "Enbridge Supervisors are not cleaning the oil up, instead, they are covering the oil up with grass, dirt, tarps," and that he was considering "submitting video and pictures to the local media."
At the request of SET human resources, Saylor wrote out a memo explaining that he had confronted Bolenbaugh who said "as long as he remains employed by SET, he will not submit the videos or pictures... SET viewed this as a threat and a violation of our Code of Conduct policy." Saylor also claimed that Bolenbaugh had used company gas for his personal vehicle the day before and that Bolenbaugh had twice sustained workplace injuries and continued working in violation of SET policy that workers present themselves "physically fit for duty." All were grounds for termination.
On October 15, less than three months after 6B ruptured and only eighteen days after it started carrying tar sands oil again, John Bolenbaugh was fired.
Coming tomorrow: A fired Bolenbaugh turns from cleanup worker to community crusader as Enbridge and the EPA declare the cleanup complete. But when Bolenbaugh’s video proof of hidden oil begins to gain attention, his criminal past threatens to derail his mission.
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.