Fighting Fossil Fuel In Michigan; Why Chris Wahmhoff Spent His Birthday Inside An Enbridge Pipeline Part 1
Who is Chris Wahmhoff? If you follow the environmental movement, you may already have some idea of who Chris Wahmhoff is. At this time he might be best known as “the guy that rode his skateboard into that Enbridge pipeline in Michigan.” Around Michigan, he’s known for a lot of other things as well, his role in Occupy Kalamazoo, his role in an important protest/action against fracking that took place during an MDNR’s land auction a year ago, his devotion to helping others, his energy and honesty, and of course, his consistency in fighting for economic justice, protesting big banks, helping MI families fight eviction and doing hundreds of other things to educate people, raise awareness and improve the lives of others. I have had the personal good fortune of knowing Chris through his work in the Michigan environmental movement and various other causes that he has thrown his heart and soul into. I also was fortunate enough to be able to interview him immediately following his action against Enbridge, to speak with his girlfriend Lisa Lalegio and to talk with other members of MICATS (Michigan Coalition Against Tar Sands) in order to be able to write this piece and those that will accompany it. If you want to understand why Chris Wahmhoff chose to put his life on the line by skateboarding into that pipe, it’s important that you first understand who he is and what he represents.
In July of 2010 the lives of thousands of people who live, work and play in the Marshall, Michigan area were changed forever. As more than a million gallons of tar sands oil, technically known as dilbit or diluted bitumen, poured into the once thriving waterways of the Kalamazoo River, these Michigan residents became the first humans ever, to experience the devastating consequences of a tar sands oil spill of this size and nature. For those who are not aware, dilbit (the technical name for tar sands oil) is not the same type of oil that humans have been spilling and leaking into other areas of the country, like the Gulf of Mexico and along the East coast. It is a thick, dirty oil which cannot flow readily through a traditional pipeline. The toxic chemicals used to dilute the “oil” in order to make it liquid enough to move through the Enbridge pipeline were the first thing released into the air, when the spill first occurred along the Kalamazoo River. Nearby residents almost immediately began to experience a wide range of severe medical conditions, from difficulty breathing to red, angry rashes, many had seizures for the first time in their lives and in some cases, permanent illness and even death occurred. 3 years later, many local residents continue to experience diverse medical symptoms, ranging from mild to severe, especially in areas directly impacted by the spill.
In 2008, nearly two years before the Enbridge oil spill would impact this area of Michigan, Christopher Wahmhoff left the small town of Plainwell, MI, to settle in the Kalamazoo area. After major surgery and complications that led to severe health problems (which eventually cost him his job) Chris found steady employment working for a company in the Edison area of Kalamazoo. His day job involves working with people with mental and emotional disabilities, another area where he devotes himself passionately to the cause of helping others. His personal experiences, especially the medical issues he had faced and the lack of compassion and support he had received from his former employer, are what initially led him to the Occupy Wall Street movement. OWS gave him an outlet and a voice for his concerns about income inequality, social issues, housing justice, healthcare and a range of other important topics. Little did he know at the time, that his fight was only just beginning.
When the oil spill in Kalamazoo was first discovered, it wasn’t immediately apparent how dire the situation was. As nearby residents described noxious odors and began to experience headaches, nausea and other symptoms, Enbridge worked hard to cover up what had happened in the small town of Marshall, Michigan. Initial estimates regarding the amount of oil spilled sounded bad, but in fact were nowhere near as bad as the reality of what actually occurred. The Enbridge pipeline had spilled for more than 17 hours before being shut down. While those early estimates suggested that hundreds of thousands of gallons of tar sands oil had contaminated the River, final estimates put the amount at more than 1.1 million gallons. Truckloads of dead animals and fish were hauled away from the scene. The oil could be seen stretching for miles along the river. Clean-up crews arrived, booms were deployed, residents evacuated, but still, the extent of the problem was not yet understood.
If experiencing medical issues and losing his job had prompted Chris Wahmhoff to become involved in the Occupy Wall Street movement, the Enbridge oil spill that contaminated miles of water along the Kalamazoo River was the rude awakening that would cause him to throw his heart and soul into the environmental movement, eventually leading him to risk his life, in hopes of finally drawing national attention to the impact that this massive tar sands oil spill has had on the place that he calls home. Beyond witnessing the environmental impact on the river itself, which he describes as the place where he played every day as a child, growing up in Michigan, he’s seen first hand the economic and health impacts on friends, coworkers and fellow residents of the city. He talks passionately about residents of a trailer park that sits near the banks of the Kalamazoo River and points out that they have little power when it comes to battling a fierce giant such as Enbridge. He thinks about his neighbors from Plainwell, who resided directly in the path of the spill, some of them now passed away, others who packed up and left the area. He mentions that his previous home was situated less than 100 feet from the Kalamazoo River, directly along the route of the spill. Although no longer living there when the spill occurred, there is an obvious sense of “that could have been me.”
Since the oil spill, Chris has taken on the role of activist and educator, not only when it comes to toxic tar sands oil but also when it comes to other issues affecting the Kalamazoo area and the state of Michigan, as a whole. When I asked him where he was when he first heard about the oil spill, he told me he was out of town at a music festival. In those days, he says, he didn’t think much of it. His reply at the time was “I’m sure it will be fine, my brother does drilling up there.” He mentions this because his brother actually works for Halliburton, a company that does gas fracking in Michigan, and one which totally unconnected to the Enbridge oil spill. He points out that his knowledge about what was going on with the fossil fuel industry in his state, even to the extent of knowing the difference between the gas fracking industry and the tar sands oil industry, was somewhat scarce before the Kalamazoo disaster.
What changed his mind? I wanted to know how Chris went from a rather unconcerned and uninformed individual, to one that was willing to risk his life and future, in order to protest Enbridge. Even after returning to Kalamazoo and seeing the workers cleaning the river, Chris says he wasn’t overly concerned. But as he started talking to people, learning how the spill had affected them, as he began hearing from others about illnesses, injuries, property damage, exploitation and the on-going contamination, he began to wonder.
“It was spring of 12, and our group had someone ask if we were going to do anything about it. Then we started digging … and WTF’s ensued.
We started finding out that kids were having seizures.
Even then I wasn’t sold until I went into Ceresco for a sample…
I wanted to see for myself.
So I went into the Ceresco damn ( which was later sold to Enbridge)
I went in shorts like I had 1000 times before and 3 things happened that never happened before. First, there were no frogs, or bugs, or fish, or turtles…anywhere. Second, there were sink holes. I found one by stepping in it and sinking to my waist instead of the 10 inches I was thinking I would be in. Last, I came up with a leg full of oil, and then I threw up for the next 3 days.”
Many people are not aware that a tar sands oil spill does indeed cause sinkholes and these can be found throughout the Kalamazoo River today, in areas where none existed before the spill. The effect of his trip to the river that day has forever changed his life. Now one of Michigan’s leading environmental activists, Chris is concerned about a wide range of issues that have occurred in MI, including PCB contamination in the Kalamazoo River. That contamination hails from a landfill that sits in the center of town and has become a major issue in this area of MI. Aware as he is of the consequences of PCB’s in the water, which have been shown to cause learning disabilities in children (along with a range of other developmental and long term health problems) he is also quick to point out that PCB’s in the water are nowhere near as toxic as the diluted bitumen that still contaminates the Kalamazoo waterways, 3 years later. Enbridge has been ordered by the EPA to return to the area this summer, in order to dredge an additional 4 spots along the river where tar sands oil still churns to the surface. He talks about how even though PCB’s have been documented in the river for more than 6 years, life was always present in and around the water. Now he says, since the tar sands spill, the obvious lack of life in and around the water is a clear indication of a much more serious problem in this region.
As Michigan rushes forward to produce fracked gas and oil, install hundreds of miles of new pipelines to carry this toxic oil across the state, works toward deregulating the fossil fuel industry and removes environmental protections that have been present in the state for decades, more and more activists like Chris are standing up for the environment and for the human and animal life which will be forever impacted by massive numbers of fracking wells and tar sands pipelines. MICATS (Michigan Coalition Against Tar Sands) Idle No More, Sovereign Summer, Occupy Detroit, Occupy Kalamazoo and many other activist groups are standing up for the state’s land and water. Activists express serious concerns that, while MI has had a long history of laws and regulations that favor the fossil fuel industry over citizens, this tend has grown steadily worse over the past several years. Exceptions from clean air and water standards, chemical disclosure rules, landowners’ rights and many other issues are at the forefront of the debate in the Great Lakes State.
Michigan is the only state that is bordered by all 5 Great Lakes. The lakes provide drinking water for more than 40 million people, and together they make up one fifth of the world’s fresh water supply. Under the current leadership, MI has begun auctioning off public land and water supplies to private corporations in an unprecedented fashion. Chris attended last years public land auction, with the intention of purchasing land which was being auctioned off near his home. To his surprise and dismay, neither he nor those who accompanied him to the “public” auction were allowed into the bidding room. While security told them it was because of “safety regulations” which limited the number of people to 60 within the bidding room, Chris and his friends were told to wait in the hall, long before that number had been reached. “We were the first ones there” he says “but they told us to wait in the hall. We watched as they let the corporate bidders in ahead of us, and tried to question them on why we were not being allowed in, since this supposedly was a public auction.” The group was given a number of excuses, even as they counted more than 60 corporate bidders entering the auction room. “At one point I just began bidding on a piece of property that I thought was the one near my home I was standing in the doorway, and I just started holding up my bidder card”. The auctioneer accepted Chris’s bid and he became the proud owner of a plot of land somewhere in MI, although the property turned out to be nowhere near Kalamazoo. Up until a few weeks ago, Chris considered this one his most successful actions.
The protest Chris staged on his 35th birthday, however, made headlines both nationally and internationally. For those who want to know what it’s like inside an Enbridge pipeline, and why that action may be one of the most important and monumental moments in the history of the environmental movement, read “Inside the Pipeline,” the second part of this important series on Chris Wahmhoff and the MI environmental movement.