[NOTE: This story is based on statements compiled from several different eyewitnesses. The sources for this article have asked to remain anonymous, in lieu of possible legal or civil action.]
Two weeks after skateboarding into an Enbridge pipeline, in Marshall, Michigan, Chris Wahmhoff is experiencing bouts of dizziness, dull persistent headaches, trouble remembering and odd sensations which include sudden feelings of heat on one side of his face. The decontamination he experienced, following his ten-hour stay inside the pipe, consisted of being sprayed down with a fire hose immediately upon emerging. Those who are closest to Chris are worried, and one of the biggest reasons for this is that no one knows what kinds of chemicals he was exposed to or what the long-term health impacts will be.
“There were not supposed to be chemicals in the pipe” one source pointed out. In fact, the pipe itself was supposedly new, and had not yet been installed.
“We really didn’t think we would be able to pull it off,” he says,
“So we had a back-up plan, we were going to chain ourselves to the pipe if we couldn’t gain access.”
What happened when the group arrived, however, made the backup plan unnecessary.
“We thought that the pipe would be welded or at the least bolted shut,” I was told. “Instead, what we found was that it was sealed with nothing but duct tape.”
“Nothing was cut, nothing was damaged. All we had to do was peel off some tape.”
At this point, he wants to make sure it is known that if it had been a child who came upon the taped up pipeline, the outcome may have been very different.
“There are no fences around the area, no barriers whatsoever. We didn’t have to climb anything, nothing like that, we just walked right up to it, peeled off some tape and that was it. We were in.”
“As soon as the pipe was opened, we were hit hard with the smell of chemicals. The smell was so strong that we all took a step back away from it”
At that point some people in the group that accompanied Chris to the pipeline that morning, began expressing doubts about letting the action go forward.
“None of us knew what was in that pipe, but the smell that came out when the cap was removed, it was sort of like, just – wow this isn’t good.”
Chris pretty much told them that he hadn’t come this far to not do what he set out to do. He dropped his skateboard to the ground and disappeared into the pipeline. Later, he would make it clear that not going in was never an option that crossed his mind.
I’ve known Chris for some time, through MI’s growing environmental movement. He has made it clear to me, and everyone else that knows him, that there is nothing he is not willing to sacrifice for a cause he fervently believes in. He views himself as unimportant, in comparison to the thousands of people who could be affected if Enbridge is allowed to move forward with a tar sands pipeline expansion in the state of Michigan.
On July 14th, environmental groups and concerned citizens from Michigan converged at the Mackinaw Straights for a day of protest, education and action. The “Oil and Water Don’t Mix Rally to Protect the Great Lakes” drew crowds from all over the state. Amy Kerr Harding of Democracy Tree reported from the rally.
“They gathered to protest the proposed increase in volume pumped through “line 5″ of the Enbridge pipeline crossing the straits under the Mighty Mac. The current capacity of the sixty year-old pipeline is 490,000 barrels a day, and the company is poised to add another 50,000 to that load.” [... ]
Enbridge insists their safety record on Line 5, also known as the Lakehead Pipeline, is outstanding. Beth Wallace of the National Wildlife Federation begs to differ. She is the author of a report titled Sunken Hazard: Aging oil pipelines beneath the Straits of Mackinac an ever-present threat to the Great Lakes. When she took the podium at the rally, she led with the list of significant incidents that have already occurred on the Lakehead Pipeline system. She started by recounting a spill in 1999 in Crystal Falls, Michigan in which 226,000 gallons spilled from line 5. Enbridge disposed of the oil by lighting it on fire. Wallace challenged the crowd to admit if they had heard anything about the incident. She was met with silence. She went on to tick off a litany of spills on the Lakehead system that were hushed:
July 2002: A pipeline in Itasca County, MN spilled 252,000 gallons of crude oil causing $5.6 million in damages
Feb. 2003: Monroe County, MI where a 5,460 gallon spill caused a quarter million in damages
Oct. 2003: Bay County, MI 21,000 gallons of crude spilled
Jan. 2005: Another Bay County spill of 4,200 gallons
Jan. 2007: A leak in Wisconsin spilled 50,000 gallons on farmland
Nov. 2007: Oil and gas from a ruptured line ignited near Clearbrook, MN, killing two workers. Enbridge was fined $2.4 million for failing to follow safety rules.
Jan. 2010: 126,000 gallons were leaked in Neche, North Dakota
July 2010: A ruptured pipeline near Marshall, MI dumped one million gallons into Talmadge Creek and the Kalamazoo River.
Sept. 2010: A broken pipeline near Chicago spilled 250,000 gallons of oil
July 2012: In Grand Marsh, WI, a rupture sprayed 50,000 gallons onto a farm, including the home and livestock.
“And that’s just a short list of the 80 spills the federal government has documented on the Enbridge Pipeline since 2001.”
For these reasons, and others which were discussed in part one of this series, Chris Wahmhoff saw no reason to reconsider his action. The pipe he entered is one he described as being “the last piece of the puzzle.” Enbridge was going to install it that day, increasing the load of toxic tar sands oil through the state, and through the Mackinaw Straights, endangering the lives of thousands and the water supply of millions of people who live in the Great Lakes region.
Inside the pipe that Chris Wahmhoff occupied on June 24, 2013, was a thick, chemical “fog.” It made it difficult to see and to breathe. The taste was likened to the taste of paint. Chris did not take a face mask, nor any other protections, into the the pipe with him. The reason for this was that no one thought dangerous chemicals would be present inside a pipe that had never been used before. He placed his backpack over his face during the first part of the day, trying to filter out some of the chemical smell.
All over the walls of the pipe there was, what witnesses described as, an “orange substance.” Some members of the group thought it could be rust, but others sincerely question that for two reasons: First, the pipe was supposedly new. If that is the case, they reasoned, it should not be literally covered in that much rust. Second, two recent spills have been captured on video, both showing a bright orange substance contaminating waterways. The substance in these videos, I’m told, looks remarkably like the one that covered the inside of the Enbridge pipeline in Marshall, MI.
The plan was for Chris to go in deep enough into the pipe to be reasonably sure that the authorities couldn’t easily reach him. He took a backpack with him, which he packed with basic camping equipment and enough food for a three day stay inside the pipe. When he reached a location which he thought was “deep enough” inside, he stopped and assembled camp. The first thing he did was set up two lights, to give him a better look as well as allow him to take photos and videos. Once the lights were on, he got his first real look at the inside of the pipe.
That was when he had what he later described as his “Oh shit moment.” The moment, he later told friends, that he first realized what he was doing could be life threatening.
Aside from the orange substance on the walls of the pipe, a silvery substance coated the floor. It was described as being about two inches deep, from the open end of the pipe to as far as he could see toward the other end. He told friends later that he had known he was wet, “but until that moment I didn’t realize it was with some kind of chemicals.”
There is a lot of speculation as to the nature of this shiny, metallic looking substance. Until more testing is done, there is no way to know for certain.
“They took Chris from the pipe directly to the hospital. From what he told us later, the doctors seemed mainly concerned about the liquid on the floor of the pipe and kept asking if he had touched it or gotten it on him.”
A specialist in toxicology who has spoken with Chris since he emerged from the pipeline, has expressed concerns about the possibility of mercury, a highly toxic substance that could drastically impair his health and may lead to life threatening medical issues.
“At this time, one of the main goals of the MICATS and other groups affiliated with Chris is to raise money to cover his legal fees and to send him to a medical specialist for testing.”
Testing could not only help him receive necessary medical care, but may also tell us once and for all, what kinds of chemicals Enbridge is using in these pipes, and how they threaten the lives and health of everyone in the path of a tar sands oil spill. Anyone who wants to donate to this effort can do so by visiting the wepay.com account set up by MICATS (Michigan Coalition Against Tar Sands.) Dr. Riki Ott, a specialist in industrial toxicology, has agreed to see Chris.
“It’s really encouraging that she wants to meet with Chris, but first we have to be able to get him there” a friend said. “As of right now he’s doing pretty well. Aside from the fact that he has a persistent headache, dizziness and some odd feelings that come and go, he’s doing OK. The concern is for the long term, as we don’t know what the future will bring. Right now, we realize that Chris is like a living laboratory, his hair, blood, body fluids etc… might be able to tell us things that Enbridge doesn’t want to.”
Chris spent ten hours in the pipeline. Over the course of those ten hours he saw, heard and felt a lot of things. This series of articles is an effort to record those things, with the help of friends, fellow protestors and witnesses. This article sums up only what happened in the first 15 to 20 minutes after the pipe was opened. What happened after that may help answer the question, “Does Enbridge Care About Me?” To find out why, stay tuned for Part 3 of this series on Chris Wahmhoff.