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Life on the Kalamazoo River: suing & settling with Enbridge

Wayne and Sue Groth used to live near Talmadge Creek, where the oil spill occurred last summer. They eventually sold their home to the energy company, Enbridge.
Photo by Steve Carmody
Wayne and Sue Groth used to live near Talmadge Creek, where the oil spill occurred last summer. They eventually sold their home to the energy company, Enbridge.

This is part three of a series marking the first anniversary of the Kalamazoo Oil Spill. Click here for parts one and two.
A year ago... a ruptured pipeline spewed more than 840,000 gallons of tar sands oil into the Kalamazoo River.

The crude oil had a big environmental impact. It also affected the lives of thousands of people living in the spill zone. The pipeline’s owners have spent the past year reimbursing many of them for their losses.

Wayne Groth says the odor of the oil was overpowering the first night. Talmadge Creek runs right past the home he and his wife Sue lived in for 22 years. The oil flowed down Talmadge Creek into the Kalamazoo River.

Groth says it wasn’t long after the spill that clipboard carrying employees of Enbridge started walking through his neighborhood, promising to clean up oil. He says they made another promise too...

“They said if you’re still not happy with the job... you could sell your property to them. They would buy it from us.”

Wayne Groth says he and his wife initially were only half interested in Enbridge’s offer to buy their home. He says they were satisfied with the cleanup, but...

“They kept asking ‘Do you want us to do an appraisal on your property?’ I kept telling them no. But my accountant is the one who told me ‘you really should have them do that and take a look at the opportunities that are out there to buy another piece of real estate. It’s a buyer’s market now.’”

It’s definitely been a buyers’ market for Enbridge. Eventually, Enbridge bought the Groths’ home... and has bought or is buying another 137 homes in the spill zone.

Enbridge has not only been buying homes,  it has also been settling claims with hundreds of people affected by the spill in other ways.

Jason Marshum is an Enbridge spokesman. He says the pace of damages claims against Enbridge that was once a torrent has slowed to a trickle.

“We’re not seeing the high volume of claims that we were 10 months ago, or even six months ago, that number has decreased the further away from the incident last summer. So in that regard, it’s winding down.”

Enbridge has settled more than 2300 damage claims.

But not everyone is happy with Enbridge’s efforts.

Attorney Bill Mayhall represents 16 families that are suing Enbridge. Mayhall says overall, Enbridge has in many instances treated people fairly and compensated them well. But he does have a problem with the damage claim system that the pipeline company set up after the spill. Under the system, people made their damage claims directly to Enbridge.

“In other words, Enbridge was judge and jury as to whether you had a legitimate claim or not. As opposed to having a neutral third party that didn’t have conflict of interest making those decisions.”

Mayhall says Enbridge was quick to compensate for property damage... but has resisted paying damages for health related claims. An Enbridge spokesman insists the company has settled some claims related to health complaints.

Mayhall says his clients will be deposed this week by Enbridge attorneys. He says unless a settlement can be reached in the next few months, their cases may end up going to court... a process that may take years.

But for others affected by the spill, their lives have moved on.

“It’s just wild grasses and wildflowers growing out there.”

Wayne Groth is standing on the deck overlooking the backyard of his new home south of Battle Creek. He and his wife Sue moved late in the spring.

It’s a lovely home, with only one possible problem.

“We’ve got another little creek running by our house and we discovered after we bought this place there’s another pipeline real close by. I thought that was a little ironic.”

But Wayne and Sue Groth say they’re not worried another pipeline breach could force them out of their home again.

Steve Carmody has been a reporter for Michigan Public since 2005. Steve previously worked at public radio and television stations in Florida, Oklahoma and Kentucky, and also has extensive experience in commercial broadcasting.
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