The Gulf of Mexico isn’t the only magnet for oil spill lawsuits these days.
Similar litigation is also starting to surface in Michigan, where a ruptured pipeline recently dumped nearly 1 million gallons along a 25-mile stretch of the Kalamazoo River, about 100 miles west of Detroit.
And as with the gulf spill, a foreign oil company is taking the heat for this Midwest disaster: Canada’s Enbridge Inc., an energy provider headquartered in Calgary, Alberta, which, like BP, has vowed to clean up the mess and reimburse those affected. The company also has urged residents not to sue for property damages — assuring them that all legitimate claims will be paid, and that a claims process is already underway.
The lawyers, meanwhile, aren’t holding their breaths.
“Enbridge has said that they’re going to do the right thing with respect to this contamination. We filed suit to make sure they do,” said David H. Fink of the Miller Law Firm in Rochester, Mich., which filed a putative class action over the oil spill on Aug. 2.
The lawsuit was filed on behalf of all property owners and business owners who may have suffered economic damages due to the spill. He anticipates the class could get quite large. “You’re dealing with a 25-mile stretch of river,” Fink said, noting that “the phones have been ringing for a long time” with prospective plaintiffs.
“As far as we’re concerned, what they’re doing right now is a little too late. It’s not an uncommon tactic by these companies to open up their checkbooks and throw money at people to make it go away,” said Elizabeth Thomson of Hertz Schram, an environmental firm in Bloomfield Hills, Mich., that filed a class action against Endridge on July 30, five days after the spill was reported.
“Litigation is absolutely necessary,” she said. “Enbridge is saying, ‘OK, we’ll put you up in a hotel if you incur damages.’ Or in some cases is even offering to buy peoples’ houses. But the law allows more than just that.”
In her firm’s lawsuit, Volstromer v. Enbridge Inc., plaintiffs allege that Enbridge was aware of a problem with the pipeline, but failed to address it.
“The defendants failed to exercise due care in their care, maintenance, monitoring and repair of the pipeline so as to prevent oil leaks,” stated the complaint, filed in federal court in the Western District of Michigan.
“They should have prevented the leak completely,” Thomson said. “They failed to timely report it and failed to mitigate the amount of the leak. They should have done more.”
Enbridge officials have repeatedly stressed that they are doing all they can to pay for “all legitimate claims.”
“We continue to affirm our responsibility and commitment to pay for a all legitimate claims associated with the leak,” said Enbridge spokeswoman Gina Jordan, who would not comment on any of the litigation.
Jordan noted that a claims process center has been set up in Battle Creek, Mich., and a second one is opening up on Aug. 9 in Marshall, Mich, where residents can file claims, ask questions, and address their concerns.
Meanwhile, more lawsuits may be in the offing.
The Detroit-based Great Lakes Law Center also has issued an intent-to-sue letter to Enbridge if a settlement isn’t reached within 60 days. The public interest law firm has accused the company of violating the Clean Water Act, and says that Enbridge could face more than $26 million in civil penalties based on the Environmental Protection Agency’s estimate that the spill exceeds 1 million gallons — or roughly 24,000 barrels.
Embridge has put the number of gallons spilled at 820,000 gallons.
Nick Schroeck, an attorney and executive director of the environmental law center, said among the group’s chief concerns is that Enbridge not get away with failing to pay what it’s supposed to under federal law for harming the environment. Too often, he said, companies will cut deals with the government over accidents and not pay the maximum fines that have been set up by law. Not this time, he said.
“The Clean Water Act needs to be enforced,” he said. “I think that what we’ve seen in the past is that the fines aren’t assessed at the appropriate level. What we’re trying to do is just enforce the law.”
What’s the point, he added, “if we’ve got these fines on the books, and we’re not enforcing them?
On its Web site, Enbridge has issued the following statement: “Enbridge takes every incident very seriously and we’re treating this situation as a top priority. No one was injured. However, oil was released into a creek, a tributary of the Kalamazoo River, and it has entered the river. We are committed to thoroughly cleaning up the site as quickly as possible. The safety of people and the protection of the environment are our highest priorities.”
A cause of the leak has not yet been determined.
Tresa Baldas can be contacted at email@example.com.