Thoughts on well-being, sustainability and those things that constitute a good life beyond consumption.

Friday, December 30, 2011

Prosperity ≠ Fossil Fuels

One day last summer at the Wildbranch Writing Workshop, Sandra Steingraber had those studying with her use a zip code for a place important in our lives and the Toxic Release Inventory[1] as starting points for a writing assignment. We were to examine the selected location through a new lens and react to the toxic secrets that may belie that special place.  As someone trained as a chemist, I am by no means a chemophobe.  In fact, I am often frustrated by those who call for a chemical-free world as it is simply not possible.  But having run through this exercise several times now for places in the state of Michigan where I grew up (this is starting to become an obsession), I am having to come to grips with some very dark stories about the Upper Midwestern places I still call home, even though I moved to Pennsylvania in 1986.  I am wrestling with new truths about places that I long thought of as pristine retreats, places that seem wilderness-like compared to the East Coast, the Mid-Atlantic region.  I now have a series of draft reactions to the hidden legacies of the mining, agriculture, and chemical industries historically important to Michigan, some yet too painful to publicly reveal.  And some are still in too raw form; the writing comes slowly as I struggle with the sense of deceit I feel when delving further into these chemical realities.  Below is my most recent exploration, preliminary thoughts spawned by all the media coverage of tar sands oil and my growing frustration that that we have become a nation of addicts  -- fossil fuel junkies who will stop at nothing to get the next fix.


In the summer of 2010, thousands of gallons of oil from tar sands spilled into a tributary of the Kalamazoo River and surrounding wetlands in Michigan.  The accounts vary, but numbers as high as 840,000 gallons have been reported.[2]  This spill, caused by a burst in an Enbridge Energy pipeline, likely didn’t catch the eye of the public – maybe because we were more focused on the BP oil spill disaster in the Gulf of Mexico that occurred earlier that year just months after the Deepwater Horizon drilling rig went into action.  Maybe the media coverage was scant in areas outside of Michigan.  Or maybe, given that there is already a Superfund Site on the Kalamazoo River[3] people figured it really didn’t matter anymore.  Nevertheless, this incident foreshadows what could happen if the Keystone XL pipeline is built. 

A year later, the waterway was still closed to the public and residents claim that there have been significant health impacts.[4] 

Perhaps even more troubling to me, as someone who spent almost three decades living in Michigan including my formative years as a child, is the fact that this oil spill was not an isolated event.  According to a 2010 report entitled Assault on America: A Decade of Petroleum Company Disaster, Pollution, and Profit, the state of Michigan ranks in the top 10 states with the most pipeline accidents.  And who thinks of this as an oil state?

Besides the risk of such nasty spills that destroy habitat, kill wildlife, and very likely sicken humans, the production and refining of sands oil is energy-and water intensive.  And, of course, burning of the refined product releases significant amounts of greenhouse gases.  A “game-over proposition for climate change” according to James Hansen of NASA’s Goddard Institute and a world renowned climate scientist speaking of the Keystone XL pipeline project to bring Alberta tar sands oil to Texas.

If you are a climate change skeptic, then think of the less-abstract-than-climate-change toxic implications.  The refining and burning of fuels from tar sand oils release poisonous mercury and arsenic at higher levels compared to conventional oil.  To put a human face to the impact of these contaminants, read some of the stories of people living the legacy of tar sand processing in Detroit.[5]  Multiple diagnoses and deaths of cancer.  Environmental injustices.  Nose bleeds, asthma, emphysema, hypertension, sleep apnea.

I am still not fearful of chemicals.  I understand that there are differences between statistical and perceived risk, and that there are precautions one should take when working around hazardous chemicals.  I know how to look up information on Material and Safety Data Sheets, and I am familiar with the Community Right to Know Act -- legislation aimed at protecting the public.  But many people, in fact most of the public, those community members most in need of knowing, do not know these things and have no ability to protect themselves.  They do not know to grab gloves or a mask or respirator; they cannot move to a safer place, if such a place still exists.

As I wrote recently in a Facebook response to an article describing how we are tearing up pristine places to secure fracking sand to blast underground to free natural gas:  We are tearing up the landscape for sand to blast underground only to allow the buried gases to escape into pipelines and water tables.  We blow the tops off mountains to get to coal buried underneath and extract oil from tar in sands in Canada to pipe to wherever.  We are drilling miles below the ocean for a few more drops of oil. Insanity.  But I am not sure we will ever stop defacing and rearranging the planet until it is gone, all gone.

Yes, oil (and the other fossil fuels) have become “the lubricant of the world economy” as was stated in a recent CNN article about Iran threatening to block shipping through the Strait of Hormuz.[6]  But when the industrial profit reports fail to consider the externalities, the costs to human health and welfare, and the damages to nature and our natural resources, things have gone terribly wrong with “the system”.  This is not national prosperity.  This is indeed insanity.


I started down this dismal line of internet searching because I vaguely remembered there being dark, strange looking sands in the Copper Country region of the Upper Peninsula of Michigan.  I wondered if they could possibly be tar sands deposits.  They are not.  These are stamp sands, left over from the processing of ores; in this case, they are from the processes used to purify copper.  These sands typically contain traces of toxic heavy metals.  Reportedly, aquatic life in the Keweenaw Waterway (or Portage Canal) is diminished in the areas of these sands.  Sigh.  That is yet another zip code that I need to look up.


  1. Thanks for this Diane, for your writing, thoughts and research; and for continuing to speak out on these and other critical issues. May 2012 be hopeful and beautiful.

  2. Thanks Stephen. Despite the gloomy mood of this blog post, I am actually quite a hopeful person! Happy 2012!

  3. Thanks for this well-researched article, Diane.

  4. Can someone please tell me how Enbridge can be in the list of top 100 sustainable companies (#71)? See

    According to this article, the top-ranked Canadian firm is Suncor Energy Inc., at No. 48. It is one of the world’s biggest producers of oilsands material.

  5. Michigan residents talk about the tars sands oil spill near the Kalamazoo River that I mention in this blog post:

  6. In this post, I mention the stamp sands. Today (3/28/12) I stumbled upon a hopeful post related to these mini-mine-waste-lands: