Each week Terrain.org will publish new writing coupled with a map. This is the seventh publication in the Spill Stories series.
I don’t blame the men. They grew up in middle America, a few miles east of Chicagoland Speedway—the roar and burnt rubber where man measures himself against man and machine. Their town is any town: Walmart, Chili’s, Buffalo Wild Wings, AMC, Sanctuary Golf Course. Subdivisions fill design schemes that make New Lenox look from the air like a toy town, the homes so tidy and simultaneous. For entertainment, pick a favorite brand of car chase or pick them all: Bullitt, Mad Max: Fury Road, Blues Brothers, Smokey and the Bandit, Fast and Furious, Thelma and Louise, Gone in 60 Seconds. For brew and burgers, Arrowhead Ales Brewing Company and Bulldog Ale House. No one thought much about the pipeline. It was just another feature of the landscape, much of it underground and forgotten. And roads that flat and straight were all about invitation.
Two men died and three more were injured in the fiery car crash at 2 a.m. Saturday morning, March 3, 2012. I don’t think they realized the road ended, said a spokeswoman for the Fire District, after two cars drove through a chain-link fence and hit the oil pipeline causing the fatal explosion. The men who died were riding in a Ford Mustang, their car trapped under the pipeline. Firefighters had to stand watch for six hours to make sure another explosion didn’t occur. If they moved the car, it could cause a spark, which would cause another explosion. So they watched as the car and the men burned and burned. Horrible horrible horrible, said the sheriff. There was no more to be said, though, yes, the three men in the Trail Blazer escaped and jumped back over the fence that the two vehicles had plowed through. Two suffered severe burns from the waist down, the third made it home that night. All five men were residents of New Lenox, Illinois, and in their 20s. One of the deceased had just completed training as a firefighter.
At the hospital the survivors told police the five had been out drinking at a nearby bar before they decided to head east on Old Plank Road to the dead-end straightaway beside the industrial park. What do they remember? Subsequent accident reports say they hit a concrete pier supporting the pipeline, impact shearing off the top of the Mustang and busting a 4-inch connection on a “sending trap” causing the crude oil to leak and explode. The leak was capped at 8 a.m. after 1,245 barrels had spilled. By March 6 the line was restarted with piping reconfigured and the sending trap temporarily bypassed. An estimated 6,565 tons of petroleum-contaminated soil were removed from the site. Cost = $3,016,786.
The New Lenox incident is hardly the largest oil spill in North America, not even the largest on Enbridge pipelines, the Calgary company that owns the stretch in New Lenox, Illinois, that runs from Superior, Wisconsin to Griffin, Indiana. Between 1999 and 2010, there were 804 spills on Enbridge pipelines, the dark hydrocarbon rivershed that runs from the Alberta Tar Sands to the American Midwest and beyond. The spills have not stopped. It’s the risk of doing business in volatile substances that are being piped through 29,000 miles of Enbridge pipelines moving 2.2 million barrels per day of oil and liquid hydrocarbons across Canada and North America. Risk is factored into the business plan; so is the future. In 2009 the company purchased what was then the largest photovoltaic array in North America in Sarnia, Ontario.
The largest inland crude oil spill in the Midwest occurred in 2010 in Marshall, Michigan, where “known but unreported cracks and external corrosion”—conditions known five years before the pipe burst—dumped over a million barrels into Tallmadge Creek, polluting 35 miles of the Kalamazoo River. Because controllers misread sensors on the line, they took 17 hours to respond to the break. Sections of the river were closed for two years, some reclosed in 2013, some closed indefinitely. Cost of cleanup = $36.7 million.
Accidents happen. But ever since Rebel Without a Cause, we’ve known how drag racing is likely to end. These days it feels like we’re drag racing with destiny, playing a game of chicken with climate change in our cultural dithering about taking the actions we know we need to take. It’s not rocket science. It’s just science. And we can make it to a sustainable future, if we have the will. That’s what the experts are telling us. The spills are canaries in the coal mine, but it’s the Big Spill into the atmosphere that’s the Big Bird of our historical moment.
I don’t blame the men who had a few too many beers after a hard week of work and then fell for a bad idea of fun. But of all the stories about oil spills that I scanned on the Climate Alliance Mapping Project, it was the incident in New Lenox, Illinois, that grabbed me. This kind of tragedy anyone can understand because the victims are someone’s neighbor, someone’s son, someone’s lover, some town’s new fireman. And so is everyone, every creature of land and sky, every meadow and river, every city with its glass and steel glowing, every patch of sky. The planet is our town now.