Oil, oil, toil and trouble, pipes burst and rivers bubble - Metropolitan Planning Council

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Oil, oil, toil and trouble, pipes burst and rivers bubble

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Oil and water still don't mix.

Several people have asked me whether the Enbridge oil spill along a tributary of Michigan's Kalamazoo River (which leads to Lake Michigan, our region's primary water source) is likely to affect Chicagoland's water supply.  Fortunately for us, it appears that the answer is 'probably not.'  The spill was contained quickly, and clean-up efforts are under way. 

Of course, while our water supply is most likely safe, there has been considerable damage along Talmadge Creek and the Kalamazoo River, and that's where our initial focus needs to be.  The U.S. EPA is leading the response, posting updates of its efforts, and holding regular update calls for stakeholders. Contact kelley.jeff@epa.gov if you'd like to be on those calls.  Many volunteer groups need everything from sheets to vegetable oil to help in their efforts.  They also need labor.  The Michigan Chapter of the Sierra Club is tracking response effort needs and providing status reports, check it out and lend a hand if you can.  If you want to volunteer to help you should contact the official response number: 800-306-6837.

Beyond the immediate emergency, there are two real concerns here: the state of our infrastructure, and our continued demand for oil.

It seems that the spill may have been at least partially caused by aging, corroded pipes in need of repair.  This, unfortunately, should come as no surprise to anyone.  The fact of the matter is that our nation's built infrastructure, from oil pipelines to water mains, rail tracks to bridges, gets older every day.  We get what we pay for folks, and too often we're not paying for maintenance, monitoring and repair.  Right now we pay just enough to have leaky, crumbling, and increasingly dangerous systems.  Awesome.  At the same time, our demand for oil, transportation and water is on the rise.  We put more and more stress on systems that can't take it.  Construction projects might slow you down in traffic, but every time you see your local utility digging up the street to fix an oil line, sewer system, or the street itself, think about all the possible problems being averted. 

An even larger problem is our continued demand for oil.  While this spill, thankfully, was small, it was yet another reminder of the environmental risks associated with our dependence on oil (and, just as in the case of the Gulf spill, that oil was domestic, not foreign).  However, our society, our demand for goods, and the private market that responds to our demand just don't seem to get it.  Case in point, a friend of mine recently visited her family in Louisiana, which of all places should be going through a culture shift away from oil.  Really, everyone in the state should be riding bicycles to solar panels stores right now.  Instead, she saw two people having a heated debate over who was responsible for the Gulf spill, who should be cleaning it up, and ultimately, who should get sued.  Fair enough, but they were having the discussion while each leaning against giant SUVs idling in the parking lot of a fast food restaurant in a strip mall parking lot.  Not exactly the culture shift that the moment demands.

So please volunteer to help clean up the Kalamazoo, and if nothing else, please stay informed.  But then, tell your elected officials that you want more transit choices.  Support local agriculture.  Call your water utility to see what they're doing to manage demand and reduce energy use.  Encourage your boss to establish an Employer-Assisted Housing program that rewards living near work (and taps into valuable tax credits at the same time). Think about the upkeep costs for your home, garden and body and then recognize that transit agencies, water utilities, and even oil companies have to pay upkeep costs too, and that that money has to come from us. 

As long as we need oil, and as long as that oil gets harder and harder to find, extract and transport back to us, we're going to continue to have oil spills.  We just are.  And every one of them will be our fault and nobody else's.

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