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Rivers of Oil, Episode 2: The largest inland spill

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Crews clean up from the 1991 oil pipeline spill in Grand Rapids, Minn.
It took years to clean up after an oil pipeline burst, gushing 1.7 million gallons of crude onto the landscape near Grand Rapids, Minn., on March 3, 1991. Here, crews clean up along a nearby river a week after the spill.
Screengrab from video shot by Harry Hutchins

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Harry Hutchins had grand hopes for a 16-acre patch of land near a community college in Grand Rapids, Minn.

It was the late 1980s, and Hutchins was a teacher at the school. He wanted to return the plot from farmland back to its natural wetland state. The idea was to use the marsh as a sort of living laboratory for his students. 

It took two years of work, but Hutchins finally got approval to make the plot a wetland again. 

Then, on March 3, 1991: A phone call. "A friend of mine, he called me up and said, 'Harry you won't believe this, but your wetland is filled with oil,'" Hutchins recalled this year.

A pipeline rupture had gushed 1.7 million gallons of crude oil across the landscape, filling Hutchins' wetland with the black mess. 

"It just covered these aspen trees, because it went up 30, 40 feet," he recalled. "It was quite a geyser." 

It remains the largest inland oil spill in U.S. history. 

The pipe that ruptured was Enbridge Energy's Line 3, which carries crude oil across northern Minnesota. Today, Enbridge wants to build a new Line 3 along a different route across the state, and its plan is prompting vigorous debate — partly focused on the fear of spills.

Perspective is everything: The energy industry points out that nearly all the oil transported in pipelines reaches its destination safely. From the industry's point of view, 99.999 percent of the oil they transport is transported safely. 

But that leaves the other .001 percent. And that's the percentage that people in areas where pipes have leaked care about.

This story isn't just about the risks of transporting huge amounts of oil through pipelines. It's also about the reward that oil provides. Because cheap, easy access to oil powers our society in ways we don't even think about. It's not just in our gas tanks — it's in the roads we drive on, our kids' plastic toys, our makeup.

In this episode of Rivers of Oil, we examine the fear of spills from oil pipelines, through the lens of the fight over Line 3, the plan that has the potential to be the next place where we see mass protests over pipelines.

As people who are fighting Line 3 like to point out, oil, and water, they don't mix. 



Related reading

Stories from the big pipeline disasters | Scott Hall, a former news director at Grand Rapids, Minn., public radio station KAXE, talked to us about covering the Grand Rapids spill. Inside Climate News in 2012 published a Pulitzer Prize-winning investigation into an Enbridge pipeline spill in Marshall, Mich. KIRO-7 TV in Seattle recently posted a look back at the natural gas pipeline burst in Bellingham, Wash., that killed three people in 1999.

The scene after the Grand Rapids spill | Harry Hutchins recorded some of the only video footage that shows the aftermath of the Grand Rapids spill. He shared it with environmental group MN350, which posted it on YouTube.

In Minnesota, spill fears linger as Line 3 decision nears |  MPR News reporter Dan Kraker reported earlier this spring on the fear of spills among people who live along the Line 3 pipeline route in northern Minnesota. "I think all our water is important," one Park Rapids, Minn., resident told him. "That's why we believe a barrel of water is worth more than a barrel of oil up here."