Enbridge may face criminal charges for oil spill in Kalamazoo, Michigan

The former chief of the U.S. Department of Justice’s environmental crimes section said Friday March 4, 2011, that the oil and gas company Enbridge will likely face criminal charges over its 2010 Michigan pipeline rupture. The oil spill was among the largest in the Midwest history.

A state of emergency declared Kalamazoo, Michigan as more than 800,000 gallons of sticky Canadian tar sands crude oil released into a creek into the Kalamazoo River.

In September 2010, EPA regional administrator Hedman announced that the agency had begun a criminal investigation into the spill, and the Dept. of Justice has signaled interest in pursuing the operators of leaking pipelines.

In order to prove negligence in such a case, the government only needs to prove that the company failed to use reasonable care, said David Uhlmann who led DOJ‘s environmental crimes section for seven years and now teaches at the University of Michigan.

“Negligence is not going to be hard to prove given the lack of maintenance and the extent of damage from the spill”, said David Uhlmann.

The company has a record of safety violations. In August, federal officials announced more than $2.4 million in civil fines against Enbridge for other maintenance and safety problems in Minnesota, Louisiana and Oklahoma dating back to 2006.

Federal criminal charges would likely involve misdemeanors, but those still would result in a criminal record for the company, substantial fines and the possible loss of government contracts, Uhlmann said.

Felony charges would require a knowing discharge, which is harder to prove. It is not clear at this point whether individuals within Enbridge can be held criminally responsible.
“The Justice Department and the Michigan Attorney General’s office also may file a civil complaint, in addition to the likely criminal charges against Enbridge,” he said.

Enbridge has settled many claims with local residents, but is fighting some oil spill claims in local court.

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