A refinery in Superior, Wis., wants to cut in on the rail industry’s sweet deal: shipments of oil from North Dakota. The company doesn’t own trains. But it does sit at the tip of Lake Superior.

Lake Superior, covered in white instead of oily black
NASA
Lake Superior, covered in white instead of oily black.

From the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel:

Petroleum refiner Calumet Specialty Products Partners is exploring whether to build a crude oil loading dock on Lake Superior, near its Superior, Wis., refinery, to ship crude oil on the Great Lakes and through connecting waterways, the company said Friday. …

Pipelines are the cheapest way to move petroleum products, [analyst Ethan] Bellamy said, but their delivery points are fixed. Railcars, barges and ships can move to different delivery points. That allows crude to go to the highest bidder.

And what could go wrong?

Josh Mogerman of the Natural Resources Defense Council noted that a pipeline spill two summers ago of Canadian tar sands oil fouled Michigan’s Kalamazoo River, a Lake Michigan tributary.

“That should give anyone who cares about the Great Lakes pause,” he said.

Well, yeah. But that was a pipeline. When is the last time a boat carrying oil leaked into a waterway? I mean, besides yesterday.

From Reuters:

Two oil barges pushed by a tugboat slammed into a railroad bridge in Vicksburg, Mississippi, on Sunday, causing one to leak crude oil into the Mississippi River, the U.S. Coast Guard said.

Officials used an “absorbent boom” to contain the undetermined amount of oil that leaked into the river after the collision, which occurred shortly after midnight and damaged both barges, Lieutenant Ryan Gomez said. The barge that is leaking was holding 80,000 gallons of light crude oil, he said.

The Associated Press has more details:

Tugs were holding the barge near shore on the Louisiana side of the river, south of the bridge it hit and directly across from Vicksburg’s Riverwalk Casino.

Orange containment boom was stretched across part of the river downstream from the barge, and a small boat appeared to patrol the area. …

The oily sheen was reported up to three miles downriver from the bridge at Vicksburg on Sunday. Gomez said crews have laid down a boom and also a secondary boom. They also were using a rotating skimmer device to sweep up oily water in the river.

This is a minor spill on a relatively narrow body of water. A big spill on Lake Superior — which could, in its worst case, then flow through each of the other Great Lakes and over Niagara Falls — is a daunting prospect. (We looked at the prospect of such a spill last year.)

Spills are written into business plans like Calumet’s, maybe the second or third paragraph on the 19th page. They’re worst-case scenarios for which theoretical accommodations are made. Until, as happened yesterday, the spills cease to be theoretical.