Your Story: Seeing the oil along the Kalamazoo River

Jul 29, 2011

It happened a year ago. An oil pipeline owned by Enbridge Energy spilled more than 840,000 gallons of tar-sands oil into Talmadge Creek which flows into the Kalamazoo River.

People were evacuated, the Red Cross set up shelter, and officials were wondering if the spill might reach Lake Michigan (it never did).

Sasha Acker is a social worker, grad student, and activist living in Kalamazoo, Michigan.

She sits on the board of the Kalamazoo Peace Center. We asked people to share their experiences with the Enbridge oil spill on our Facebook page.

Acker wrote:

I was skeptical when Enbridge put out a press release that said that the oil was all cleaned up, so I went to a spot along the river near Battle Creek. I went with a group that picked up gobs and gobs of oil and video taped it.

The news story Acker saw was published in August of last year. She told us that her chance to visit the river came this past spring when activists from the Yes Men  contacted her about a planned media hoax to draw more attention to the Enbridge oil spill.

The My Hair Cares Hoax

The Yes Men is a "losely affiliated group of activists from around the world," according to Acker.

They needed help from someone living near the oil spill, so they reached out to Acker - a local activist involved with the Kalamazoo Peace Center.

On their website, the Yes Men promote their mission:

Impersonating big-time criminals in order to publicly humiliate them. Our targets are leaders and big corporations who put profits ahead of everything else.

The Yes Men put out fake Enbridge press releases and a video release.

They claimed that the company planned to collect hair clippings from Canadian salons to make oil containment booms for the Kalamazoo oil spill.

Here's the Yes Men's fake video release:

You can read about the activist's hoax on the Yes Men's "We Punked Enbridge" page.

An Enbridge spokesperson reacted to the hoax saying they were not amused and would consider legal action:

"It was a form of identity theft, using underhanded methods. The way this was set up made it very difficult for reporters to know it was a joke."

Acker's trip to the Kalamazoo River

After the hoax, a Yes Men organizer contacted Acker saying he wanted to visit the Kalamazoo River and tour the spill site with a man who claimed to be a former Enbridge clean-up contractor, John Bolenbaugh.

The Yes Men organizer set the trip up, and Acker decided to go along with them. Several other student activists from Western Michigan University joined them.

Bolenbaugh took the group down to a stretch of river southeast of Battle Creek and west of Marshall.

It was March 30th, 2011.

Acker said she wasn't sure if she believed all of Bolenbaugh's claims about Enbridge and their clean-up cover-ups. But she said she was shocked to see large amounts of oil along the banks of the Kalamazoo River eight months after the spill occurred:

"It was really stupid. I wore a dress. I didn't think we were going to go through the river bed. I wore a dress and I wore flats. Like ballet flat shoes. And I was up to my ankles covered in oil."

Here's the video of their visit where Acker says Enbridge officials tracked them by boat and by helicopter (note: the date of the oil spill is wrong in the video's opening. The spill occurred in July of 2010):

Acker says when they got back to where they started (a house Bolenbaugh said he had permission to visit) the Emmett Township police were waiting with Enbridge officials.

Acker said she was intimidated and wanted to drive away, especially since she had some younger student activists with her:

"Oh, Enbridge was absolutely intimidating, when they formed a human chain around my car, I was like, 'are you guys serious?' And mostly I was concerned about getting back to school on time to take my final exam."

Here's Acker's account of what happened when they tried to leave:

Acker said she did make it back in time to take her final exam, oil covered flats and all.

All of us who were there, we had this experience, but we were afraid to talk about it because we didn't want to get arrested. I mean maybe they could come back and arrest us for trespassing, I have no idea... and if I get arrested maybe it's worth it.

*We contacted Enbridge two times to comment on the information in this story, but they did not respond to our requests.