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Sex, Oil, and Videotape

Is John Bolenbaugh out to expose the truth about a massive oil spill—or to redeem his own dark past?

| Sun Apr. 22, 2012 6:00 AM EDT

John Bolenbaugh, video camera in hand, stands near the spot on the Kalamazoo River where he says he was ordered to cover over tar sands crude with grass clippings to conceal it from EPA inspectors. His lawsuit, alleging that he was fired by an Enbridge co: Mary Anne AndreiJohn Bolenbaugh, video camera in hand, stands near the spot on the Kalamazoo River where he says he was ordered to cover over tar sands crude with grass clippings to conceal it from EPA inspectors. Photos: Mary Anne AndreiPart 2: Buried Secrets
Dark clouds were rolling in—thunder cracking in the distance—by the time John Bolenbaugh and I broke through the pines on the north edge of Jim Monaweck's property and started down the bank toward Talmadge Creek. It was mid-March, some 20 months since the night in July 2010 when an underground pipeline owned by the Canadian energy goliath Enbridge Inc., spilled more than a million gallons of tar sands-derived crude into this tributary of the Kalamazoo River. Enbridge and the Environmental Protection Agency had declared this property clear of oil in September 2010, a mere two months later. But with the disaster's two-year anniversary approaching, evidence of an ongoing cleanup was everywhere: The water's edge was still lined with black plastic silt fencing reinforced with coconut mats, the creek bed itself was newly scraped and filled with fresh pea gravel, and the hillsides were piled with straw to absorb the mud churned up by the recent work of track excavators. Monaweck stood on the far side of the creek, wearing rubber knee-boots and raking out clods of dirt. Another clap of thunder rumbled.

"Gonna rain, ain't it?" Monaweck called out as we approached.

"Yeah, about ready to," Bolenbaugh replied. Monaweck is one of the dozens of residents with homes along these waterways whom Bolenbaugh has interviewed for his YouTube channel since being fired by SET Environmental in October 2010—a wrongful termination, Bolenbaugh says, for threatening to go to the EPA and the news media with his accounts of Enbridge's botched cleanup. After his firing, Bolenbaugh distributed hundreds of fliers, going door-to-door along more than 40 miles of Talmadge Creek and the Kalamazoo River, asking residents if they had seen oil covered up on their land, all in an effort to prove the truth of his claims. Bolenbaugh's whistleblower case is currently in trial in a state courtroom in neighboring Battle Creek, and its outcome will hinge on a simple but fateful question: Did Enbridge and its contractors engage in a willful cover-up in the wake of one of the worst inland oil spills in US history?

"Guess what they did in court the other day with me," Bolenbaugh called out to Monaweck. "They filed a motion that we couldn't talk about the Enbridge or SET oil cover-up in any way, and we can't show any videos to the jury. And the judge said, 'Are you joking?'"

"What judge you get—Kingsley?" Monaweck asked.

"Yeah, he said we can show the videos, and we can talk about the cover-up. But they tried that," Bolenbaugh said, disbelief, even at this stage, creeping into his voice. "They was actually hoping that the judge would say, 'Nope, you can't show nothing,' which is the heart of my case, you know?"

Monaweck has had his own legal troubles with Enbridge—and that's why Bolenbaugh brought me out to meet him. But at the moment, Monaweck was focused on the chaos the company continued to make of his property. He smoothed out a little more dirt, then leaned on his rake.

"What a mess," he said.

Monaweck's land lies about a mile from where the rupture occurred, and the lower part of his waterfront acreage, just down the hillside from his stately brick home, was deluged with tar sands crude. But when, on August 3, 2010, Enbridge held a town hall meeting for all residents in the "red zone" (which Enbridge defined as within 200 feet on either side of Talmadge Creek or the affected parts of the Kalamazoo River), he was turned away. Tucked back amid the pines, his house had been missed by Enbridge canvassers, so Monaweck wasn't on their master list—and no amount of arguing could get him in. He had to hear secondhand that CEO Patrick Daniel had announced that Enbridge would buy any house in the red zone, that the company would pay list price for houses that were already on the market and pre-spill appraisal for anyone else who wished to sell and move out. Getting locked out seems to have hardened Monaweck's stance against Enbridge—and their relationship has been increasingly adversarial ever since.

Monaweck told me that he believed Enbridge's purchase of homes along Talmadge Creek and the Kalamazoo River was about more than having ready access to people's land for cleanup purposes; they wanted to be sure there were fewer landowners to complain. Enbridge's Daniel insisted that this was about community outreach, not an attempt to conceal anything. "Enbridge does not want people in that directly affected area to be financially disadvantaged by the spill," he explained, but Monaweck told me that Enbridge's offer on his home was less than the cash and sweat he had put into building his self-described "dream house." His neighbors, however, for a variety of reasons, didn't—or couldn't—hold out as long as he had. By the time John Bolenbaugh was going door-to-door with fliers in mid-October 2010, Enbridge had already purchased 28 homes along Talmadge Creek and the Kalamazoo River—and had ordered appraisals for an additional 105 homes in preparation for entering bids.

Monaweck told me that he believed Enbridge's purchase of homes was about more than having ready access to people's land for cleanup purposes; they wanted to be sure there were fewer landowners to complain.

Monaweck refused Enbridge's offer. Instead, he told me, he decided to stay and make sure that the company cleaned up all of the oil its contractors had covered up on his property. He knew, for example, of a thick layer of crude buried by workers along a turn in the creek where he still has a footbridge, another layer covered over in the next bend. "I waited to see if they would dig it," he told me, "but they never did."

In September 2010, Enbridge announced that the cleanup on Talmadge Creek was nearly complete. But Monaweck knew his property was far from spotless, and he called the Enbridge hotline. "I got oil on my property," he remembers telling the operator.

"No," the operator said, "they cleaned everything up."

"No, you haven't."

"How do you know?" the operator asked.

"The question is, 'How do you know?'" Monaweck remembers responding. "Because I know—I know for a fact."

Soon after, a work crew arrived at Monaweck's property, asking where he had seen oil being buried. He pointed out the spot. "So they start digging it up," he told me, "and I'm telling you, you couldn't believe the oil."

* * *

Bolenbaugh pointed toward a dirt turnout. "You can park in there," he said. I pulled off East River Road, and we started on foot through the woods. Bolenbaugh threaded through dense thicket to the marshy river bottom. A narrow brook meandered along the foot of the hillside toward a pair of islands nestled in the crook of a hairpin oxbow in the river. As we tight-roped over the brook on a downed tree, I could already see crude clotting the leaves, the telltale sheen on the water. But Bolenbaugh methodically set up his tripod and video camera, got out his newspaper and GPS to mark the date and coordinates, and began raking the brook bottom. The water swirled with oil sheen.

"So I'm just going to show you: clean glove," he said, stretching his white-gloved hand before the lens, then he reached in, skimming the surface. "Just going to come through here and collect the oil—"

He took one step into the creek and slid down into the muck up to his knee.

"I'm sinking in," he muttered, keeping his nonstop, chattering monologue going for his imagined viewer. "Getting all wet and yucky."

Through the trees, we heard the rumble of a diesel engine and saw a red Ford 4x4 prowl back and forth down River Road. Bolenbaugh said the truck belonged to a member of Enbridge's security team. Somebody had phoned us in. "Follow me," Bolenbaugh said and took off through the trees.

The woods belong to Enbridge, purchased some time after Bolenbaugh's firing—even though the land was already officially certified as clean by the EPA and Enbridge. Bolenbaugh claims that the company bought the land, which in early September 2010 had been his worksite, because of all the trouble the spot caused for Enbridge. Undocumented workers for one contractor were found cleaning up under unsafe conditions, and Bolenbaugh says that his crew and another were ordered to cover up oil by other contractors not far away—all so that the Canadian pipeline company could meet the EPA's September 27 cleanup deadline and be allowed to restart the ruptured 6B pipeline, resuming the flow of nearly 300,000 barrels per day of diluted bitumen from the northern Alberta tar sands fields to Midwestern US refineries. (And resuming the flow of $8.7 million a day into the company's coffers.)

But in late October and early November 2010, the woods around the river's hairpin oxbow were still public land—a fact that Bolenbaugh turned to his advantage as he launched his one-man crusade against Enbridge. In the wake of his firing, Bolenbaugh had secured legal representation by the law firm of Geoffrey Fieger, probably best known nationally as the defense attorney for Jack Kevorkian, but also notorious in Michigan for his 1998 run for governor—in which he plummeted in the polls after saying the incumbent looked like "the product of miscegenation between barnyard animals and human beings." Securing Fieger as his attorney introduced the threat of a media circus if the whistleblower suit ever went to trial. To further ramp up the pressure, Bolenbaugh set out with a digital camera and hip-waders and began obsessively stalking sites certified as clean by Enbridge and the Environmental Protection Agency, capturing video of submerged oil bubbling to the top, rainbow sheen swirling the surface. He posted his videos on Facebook (and later his YouTube channel) and then sent links to local media all over the region. By the time Fieger finished drawing up the complaint, Bolenbaugh had already appeared several times on the evening news.

He was positioning himself to be seen as a hero, a champion of truth and of a community done wrong. As the would-be whistleblower became more visible, though, he also risked the possibility that embarrassing information about his own criminal past might come to light. "But if I don't do this," Bolenbaugh told me later, "nobody's going to do it."

* * *

Residents affected by the spill were in dire need of a truth-telling champion—even one who sometimes rubbed people the wrong way. A congressional investigation in fall 2010 revealed that, even as local residents were complaining of health problems following the spill, Enbridge employees skipped meetings arranged by the local health department and instead visited residents individually at night, assuring them that they would be fine if they simply set up an air filter. They then asked residents to sign a document that released Enbridge from future claims—sometimes for as little as $40 cash. Michelle BarlondSmith, a resident of the Baker Estates trailer park six miles downriver from the spill, testified at a congressional hearing in Washington, DC, that she had done a small survey of her neighbors, many of whom had made multiple visits to the hospital for respiratory problems and related health issues following the spill. "Out of about 30 homes, I found 20 that have signed the waivers giving full legal responsibility away from Enbridge for air purifiers and air conditioners," she said. The air filters distributed by Enbridge in Baker Estates were later revealed to be off-the-shelf purifiers likely purchased from the local Walmart.

The congressional investigation also revealed that Enbridge, whose CEO had initially denied to an OnEarth reporter after the spill that its pipeline had been carrying tar sands oil, likewise provided emergency authorities with faulty information. The company gave local officials a Material Safety Data Sheet for garden-variety light grade crude, which didn't include mention of the chemicals contained in its tar sands-derived oil. Those data sheets are designed to help officials respond to hazardous materials spills, and, absent other information, Calhoun County Administrator Kelli Scott followed Enbridge's 200-foot evacuation recommendation. But the Emergency Response Guidebook issued to first responders during the initial phase of the cleanup calls for much larger evacuation zones for "large spills" that involved the chemicals contained in Enbridge's heavy tar sands crude. The guidebook recommends that workers responding to benzene or toulene, for example, "consider initial downwind evacuation for at least 300 meters (1,000 feet)." Scott conceded in flustered testimony before the congressional committee: "What we obtained from Enbridge is what was considered more of a generic materials safety data sheet. And so it is hard to say that, if we would have had different information earlier, you know—would the evacuation process have been different?" Those and other revelations about the condition and safety record of Enbridge's pipeline system prompted Congressman Mark Schauer, then representative for Michigan's 7th District (which includes Marshall and Battle Creek), to dress down Enbridge CEO Patrick Daniel, saying: "I have no confidence that Enbridge can operate this pipeline safely, certainly not until all of those defects are taken care of."

Yet less than a week after the congressional hearing, the Pipeline and Hazardous Material Safety Administration approved a revised Corrective Action Order submitted by Enbridge. The Pipeline Administration then approved the restart of line 6B only a week after that, on October 27, 2010. Rep. Schauer, despite his fiery recriminations of Patrick Daniel, went along with the plan—though he promised increased oversight. "PHMSA's approval of the restart plan is just the beginning of a long process," he said. "I will be keeping a close eye on both Enbridge and PHMSA to make sure all of these deadlines are met." But Schauer was voted out of office on November 2—replaced by pro-oil Republican Tim Walberg, who had previously advocated drilling in the Great Lakes.

Bolenbaugh it appeared that moneyed interests had trumped the least-heard among the residents of the town where he grew up—those people who live in tumbledown old houses or thin-walled trailers along the same river bottoms where he and his mother were living when the spill occurred. He hoped they would be heard if they banded together. Before long, Bolenbaugh had assembled a disparate but impassioned group of supporters. People like Stephen Bridges, a veteran who tells stories of watching Enbridge trucks cover over oil on his property and swears that he has had unexplained tremors ever since. People like Sherri Lynn Baldwin, who spent years working graveyard shift at the Toyota plant, socking away an extra $100 per month to pay off her $44,000 house, but now can't afford to leave (because, since the spill, her house is worth half of what she paid for it); she stays even though her younger son has such weakness in his legs since the spill that he needs help standing. People like Michelle BarlondSmith who, on behalf of all the residents of Baker Estates, begged Rep. Schauer to shut down the 6B pipeline until it could be completely updated. "This is an issue of protecting your constituents' lives, health, and way of life," she said. "Our health hangs in the balance."

One local woman spent years working graveyard shift at the Toyota plant, socking away an extra $100 per month to pay off her $44,000 house, but now can't afford to leave: Since the spill, her house is worth half of what she paid for it.

When I went with Bolenbaugh and BarlondSmith down to the bottoms behind Baker Estates, black residue nearly three feet off the ground still ringed every tree, indicating the high-mark of the oil's rise before it receded in August 2010. They introduced me to another Baker Estates resident, Phyillis Nelson. Nelson looks much older than her 49 years. She wears thick bifocals and is frail from emphysema; on a day when the rest of us wore sweatshirts, she was bundled in a bulky, royal-blue down coat and clutched herself against the cold. She said that she had to put down her dogs after one delivered a full litter of deformed puppies, and the other wheezed and could never catch her breath.

Nelson attributes their illnesses to benzene from the tar sands crude. Just 24 hours after the spill, Enbridge reported to the EPA that an overnight test in 100 locations revealed no benzene detections. When the health department followed up with its own tests, however, officials found benzene levels of 15,000 parts per billion—and promptly evacuated 61 homes. (Federal drinking water standards for benzene are set at 5 ppb, and health officials in the region recommend avoiding all contact with water containing levels above 100 ppb.) Still, in December 2010, the health department announced that there would be no long-term monitoring of the effects of benzene on residents, arguing that over time it would become impossible to determine what symptoms were due to the spill exposure.

"My emphysema's went from Stage I to Stage III," Nelson told me. She remembered how her throat hurt and she started coughing up blood before anyone came to inform her of the spill: 10 days passed, she said, before anyone arrived to suck up the oil where we were standing; for 10 days she hacked up blood not knowing what was wrong with her.

"I'd like to spit on them," she said.

Bolenbaugh calmed her down and told her to start from the beginning, to explain why she was so mad.

"My dad taught me how to fish on this river," Nelson began, then got choked up. "I still picture him sleeping under the old oak tree, while we're fishing. I learned how to canoe on this river. This river used to be beautiful. You could come down on a canoe for miles and see all the wildlife. We used to have a beaver here." She choked again and sobbed. "Like I said, we used to. We don't have it anymore. I can't share that with my grandkids or my kids anymore because of Enbridge."

To break the silence as she wept, Bolenbaugh joked that he needed to remember to ask Nelson about her father whenever he needed someone to cry for a reporter. My irritation must have shown through, because Bolenbaugh back-peddled immediately. "Just joking," he said. "Phyillis knows I'm just joking."

As we climbed up the steep embankment, Nelson took my arm to steady herself, and she leaned in close. She didn't want me to get hung up on the jittery, fast-talking side of Bolenbaugh's personality. He was "the voice that most of us don't have," she said. He might not be a perfect champion, but he was all they had.

"If it wasn't for him, Enbridge would be getting away with a lot," she insisted. "He is our soldier."

* * *

Bolenbaugh may be an effective champion in part because he is so flawed—may press so hard because he feels a powerful need to redeem himself. He wants to be known as the man who spoke up to save his community, but he also has a hard-wired fear of being called a liar. To overcome it, he presses his points long after they are proven, and he is almost always saying too much, sharing thoughts he knows he shouldn't voice. He's the first to concede: His mouth gets him in trouble. But his inability to filter himself may, ironically, be his best case for his honesty. Indeed, on the eve of filing his whistleblower lawsuit on November 9, 2010, when Bolenbaugh was tipped off—rightly or wrongly—that Enbridge was about to publicly reveal his greatest shame, he chose instead to out himself.

That morning, Bolenbaugh led Darren Cunningham, a reporter from WLNS-TV in Grand Rapids, out to see the oil at two sites where Bolenbaugh had worked as a cleanup technician—and which had been certified as clear by Enbridge and the EPA in September 2010. That night the EPA planned to hold a press briefing, and Bolenbaugh intended to stand up, with all media assembled, and show the bottles of contaminated water he had collected with Cunningham. He would explain that he had been fired for refusing to participate in a cover-up and for blowing the whistle on Enbridge.

At first, everything went better than Bolenbaugh could have hoped. When he and Cunningham were down by the river, they found a gas-powered hedge trimmer—a symbol, to Bolenbaugh, of how reckless Enbridge was, how careless the EPA had been in its oversight—and they collected bottles of dark brown water. While they were leaving the spot near the islands, officers from Emmett Township stopped them and warned that they were trespassing; if they returned, they would be "subject to arrest." Bolenbaugh filmed the whole thing and quickly posted it to his Facebook page, prompting a Michigan Messenger investigation. Not only was that spot public land, the local paper reported, but Enbridge had been using similar threats against the Messenger's reporters and a photographer for the Battle Creek Enquirer.

That night, Bolenbaugh arrived at the EPA community meeting decked out in a pinstripe suit and carrying both the hedge trimmer and a bottle of contaminated water. But before the meeting could kick off, a Messenger reporter overheard Enbridge employees talking about plans to arrest Bolenbaugh for trespassing earlier that day. (He was, in fact, shadowed by a Battle Creek police officer throughout the meeting—though Bolenbaugh says the officer leaned over to him and whispered that he was doing the right thing.) The reporter also told Bolenbaugh he had been tipped off that if Bolenbaugh rose to speak—to question any of the sites certified as clean by Enbridge and the EPA, or to claim that he had been wrongfully fired—then Enbridge planned to reveal embarrassing information about his past.

"No, they're not," Bolenbaugh said. He walked into the conference room and called for everyone's attention; he asked the film crews to turn on their cameras. He set the hedge trimmer on the lip of the stage, joking that he was returning it to Enbridge CEO Patrick Daniel. Susan Hedman, EPA Region 5 director, leaned into the mic and asked Bolenbaugh to return to his seat. He ignored her, turning instead to address the audience.

"I am a sex offender," he began.

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