At the end of July 2010, a nearly 40-year-old pipeline in Calhoun County, Michigan, ruptured. As crews in the Edmonton, Alberta, operations facility tried for hours to figure what had happened — turning the pipeline off and on three different times — over a million gallons of thick, heavy, toxic tar sands oil was purged from the line. It filled a wet land, then a stream, then contaminated 36 miles of the Kalamazoo River
Two days after the initial reports, I was sent to Marshall, Mich., the site of the rupture to report on the crisis for my employer, the Michigan Messenger. When I first arrived, I went to a bridge, less than a mile from where the creek met the river. I shot video of thick ribbons of oil twirling in the flood stage water. It stunk to high heaven, but I soon found I could no longer smell it as my senses became numb.
It took ten days for the company to admit the oil that was flowing in the river was, in fact, tar sands oil, something it did only because I pointed out to Patrick Daniel, the CEO of Enbridge, the company responsible, that the U.S. Geological Survey maps showed Cold Lake was part of the Alberta Tar Sands deposits.
That spill would become the most expensive inland oil spill in America history (it has cost nearly $1 billion to clean it up, and the company is still working, three and half years later, to remove oil from the bottom of the river). Prior to that admission, the oil was presented as traditional crude oil. Company officials regularly referred to it as “Cold Lake Crude,” named after where it is removed from the earth.
This is not your grandfather’s oil, either. The oil is harvested from the earth with steam injection. It is down there, in solid tar forms, and has to be melted before it can be pumped from the earth. To melt it, companies inject steam deep into the earth, contaminating the water used in the steaming in the process. And when it gets to the surface, it is still thick and filled with sand. It is mixed with a product called diluent, a secret mix of chemicals that may include a toxic dispersant now implicated in health issues from the Gulf of Mexico oil spill in April 2010.
Emergency officials had made health decisions on evacuations based on false information provided by the company. They only evacuated small areas along the river. If they had responded based on the knowledge it was tar sands oil, they would have evacuated 1,000 feet on either side of the river, for the entire length of the spill.
As it became clear that the oil we were dealing with in this disaster was a completely different monster, it also became clear I had been exposed to toxic levels of benzene, xylene and other petroleum-based toxins. Each of them have documented effects on the immune system, causing white blood cell suppression and have been linked to blood cancers as well.
I knew I was in trouble, so I called my infectious disease specialist and requested an immediate blood draw to measure my blood for benzene and evaluate what, if any, impact the exposure may have had on my immune system. The results were revealing. While the benzene was gone from my system, its mark was evident. Just two months after my last lab tests, my CD4s had dropped from 562 to 390. My viral load blipped up, from 0 to 58. Most telling, however, was the corresponding crash in my CD8 measure – from 1685 in to 967 in August. By October, the CD4 had normalized to 624, the CD8 to 1387, and the viral load to undetectable.