Citizen journalist John Bolenbaugh, the Michigan oil-spill-clean-up-worker-turned-whistleblower-turned tar-sands gadfly, spent the last week in Mayflower, chatting with residents, documenting what he saw on video, and attempting to see the ongoing spill clean-up himself.
Bolenbaugh worked on cleanup following a July 2010 rupture of an Enbridge pipeline near Marshall, Michigan that sent over a million gallons of heavy tar sands oil flowing into the Kalamazoo River. He was fired in October 2010 by Enbridge subcontractor SET Environmental after, he says, he refused to hide and cover up evidence of oil contamination. He later filed a whistleblower lawsuit over his firing, and settled out of court for an undisclosed sum in April 2012. Since then, Bolenbaugh has become an activist against tar sands oil, visiting spill sites and documenting what he sees while doing follow-up reports on the Kalamazoo River clean up. Bolenbaugh said he has spent over $35,000 of his own money traveling and documenting pipeline spills.
"This is my calling," he said. "This is what I feel my purpose in life is now: to travel around and give speeches and document tar sands spills. I've seen the devastation first hand of what tar sands oil can do to a community."
During his time in Arkansas, Bolenbaugh said he was followed several times by local police, something he managed to capture on video on at least one occasion, confronting an officer in a Faulkner Country Sheriff's Department patrol car who tailed him into a parking lot. As seen in the video, the officer in the car refused to roll down his window or talk to Bolenbaugh when Bolenbaugh confronted him to ask why he was being followed.
Bolenbaugh, who said he has several relatives currently working on pipeline projects, said that he isn't an anti-oil.
"I'm not against oil. People need to understand that. I'm a Union member, that works on oil pipelines. I'm not against oil, and I'm not against working on an oil pipeline job. I'm against tar sands."
Bolenbaugh said Mayflower residents he spoke with are upset, and don't believe that ExxonMobil has been telling them the truth about the spill cleanup or the potential health effects.
"The residents are pissed," he said. "Exxon, of course, is doing their little PR campaign that everything is fine. One lady was really mad because all the kids were sick and puking at school, and they didn't evacuate the school." Bolenbaugh said he has been diagnosed with migraines, dizziness, headaches, blood in his urine and kidney dysfunction, all of which he attributes to his time as a tar sands oil cleanup worker. He added that residents of the area should consider seeking legal representation, and should avoid signing any settlements with ExxonMobil, even if they're feeling fine now.
"People have to realize that these chemicals sometimes take up to a year before you'll even see signs that you are getting sick," he said. "What Exxon and Enbridge and all these companies do, they'll have people sign off, they'll give them two or $3,000 dollars or less, and then they say: 'sign this document that clears us from all future lawsuits. Basically you have settled with us.' The issue with that is, people will have major medical bills in the future, or maybe the kids who breathe these chemicals in, maybe ten years in the future, they get cancer."