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Teaching Media Literacy Through Environmental Disaster: The Kalamazoo River Oil Spill

As we entered the Age of Trump, university educators justifiably questioned what they could do in the classroom to address the “post-truth” state of North American public discourse. Opinion pieces made the social media rounds, some of them despondent, others more hopeful.

Media literacy is an obvious competency that is all too often lacking in students (and society in general, apparently). This is something historians, I would suggest, are well placed to teach. Now, readers might counter that media literacy skills are more appropriately taught in university disciplines other than history – i.e., those that focus on contemporary or fourth estate issues. There are, to be sure, unique aspects about our current digital echo chambers and “fake news” that may not have precise historical analogues; at the same time, bias in journalism or media monopolies that determine content are nothing new, and the principle that you have to be careful about what you read is as old as the printed word (heck, probably as old as the cuneiform). Moreover, studying events with some historical distance can result in greater objectivity and empathy since  students aren’t as likely to have a partisan position on something they’ve never even heard of.

For several years, I’ve been using a group assignment in my Introduction to Environmental Studies course that gives students experience with analyzing how the media reported on and portrayed a local environmental disaster. This grows out of the same place-based impulse that underpins field trips for environmental history and environmental studies, which I’ve written about before here on The Otter.

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Ruptured pipeline from Kalamazoo River oil spill

The environmental issue in question is the 2010 Kalamazoo River oil spill. This spill took place east of the City of Kalamazoo, the location of my home institution, Western Michigan University. It was actually the largest inland oil spill in American history, though it was overshadowed by the Deepwater Horizon disaster in the Gulf of Mexico a few months earlier. The pipeline is 6B, owned by Enbridge Energy Partners, a Canadian company (which allows me an opportunity to expose students to some additional Canadian content, even if it doesn’t portray Canada in the best light!). Built in 1968, this almost 300-mile-long pipeline runs from Sarnia to Indiana as part of Enbridge’s Lakehead system.

In July 2010, pipeline 6B burst, sending more than 1,000,000 million gallons of Alberta dilbit (diluted bitumen) into Talmadge Creek, a tributary of the Kalamazoo River. Enbridge had ignored previous problems with the pipeline, and the volume of the spill was exacerbated because the energy company didn’t detect the spill for almost a day – and actually increased pressure in the pipeline, thinking it had a blockage. The dilbit creeped some 38 miles downstream before its progress was halted, coating everything in its path and forcing the evacuation of many riverine residences. Enbridge, and government officials, were totally unprepared for an event of this magnitude and involving this type of fossil fuel. As officials scrambled to figure out how to best address the mess, much of this tar sands product sank after the chemicals that help it flow through the pipes evaporated.

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To tackle this assignment, I usually divide students into four groups of 5-7 apiece. Each group needs to research and contrast newspaper articles that appeared in the three weeks after the 2010 spill. A select sampling of newspapers are sorted into three different categories: local, regional, and national (note that I pre-scouted what students were likely to find so that I would be able to select appropriate dates and publications).

Before students get into actually looking at newspapers, we spend a class period in the library receiving instruction from an information management specialist about databases, keyword searching, saving references, and so on. Here they learn how to efficiently and effectively search newspapers within the prescribed date range.

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It is also important to know that the Kalamazoo River had a checkered environmental past before the oil spill. Parts of the river and its tributaries constitute a Superfund site because of the region’s long pulp and paper mill history. Some parts of the waterway have been remediated and delisted, while public hearings about other rehabilitation proposals have been ongoing lately (which make for useful extra credit assignments). Thus, required background reading for this group assignment includes Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) reports on the history of the river as a Superfund site, as well as what has transpired recently in terms of cleaning up the contaminated sediment. As a result, students learn to not only critically read journalism, but government documents. I also have them read an excellent and concise (and free!) ebook on the spill: The Dilbit Disaster.

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Over the last few semesters, I’ve experimented with a few different ways of dividing up the newspaper categories. Sometimes I’ve asked one group to only focus on one of the categories (e.g., local or national), other times I’ve had each group look at one newspaper from each category; sometimes I’ve had groups look at the same newspapers, or at different papers. For all of these scenarios, I give them a range of questions and issues to address:

  • provide the pertinent facts about the spill (who, what, where, when, how, why)
  • do the newspapers agree on the facts, or what facts are important?
  • analyze the type of language used by the articles – is it neutral and just reporting, or is there a certain perspective or slant? If you encounter any editorials or opinion pieces, what is the argument and evidence?
  • whom did the papers blame or hold responsible, if anyone?
  • what were the identified environmental/ecological impacts? Did the papers have any prescribed solutions?
  • how do the newspapers talk about the environment?
  • were there other major differences or similarities in the way that the papers characterized the spill?
  • incorporate any relevant information from course readings on “The Dilbit Disaster” and EPA website on Kalamazoo River Superfund site
  • are there major discrepancies between the newspapers and “The Dilbit Disaster”?
  • did the newspapers mention past pollution in the Kalamazoo River?
  • how does the 2010 spill relate to the past history of the Kalamazoo River addressed in part 1? Does the oil spill seem inevitable in light of the history of the river?
  • how does the perspective –i.e., local, regional, national – factor in?

Each group submits and shares their research in a website or blog format, and the text cumulatively needs to be at least 2,000 words long. I give them a fair amount of latitude in how they want to format and structure the narrative. Some groups have tried things like recreating a Twitter feed of the event in simulated real time, or asking the questions themselves like reporters. Given that the students complete a number of other written papers for this class, including a final research paper, I believe that giving them the opportunity to share their research in a digital format is beneficial, and it easily allows them to incorporate maps, videos, and other multimedia. Once completed, the groups email me their webpage URLs so I can evaluate the content, and the groups do 15-minute presentations to the rest of the class.

screen grab of student website #1

Screenshot of student website

Each group receives an overall mark out of 10 for their website and their presentation (with the website worth 70% and the presentation worth 30%), and then each individual’s mark is determined by combining the group mark with a Peer Evaluation, which I’ll explain below.

I’ve always had reservations about group assignments because of the potential for free-riding on the work of others. But the more I thought about it, the more I realized that, like it or not, there is a good chance students are going to end up working in groups and teams once they enter the workforce. So, as educators we may as well provide some experience in navigating these situations. Another reason for making it a group assignment was logistical: a number of people are needed to do all the required research in the span of just a few weeks.

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To help compensate for scenarios where some students put in a lot of effort, but others didn’t, I have each student fill out a compulsory but anonymous evaluation form where they can indicate the level of their teammates’ contributions. If a student’s peers indicate that an individual participated fully, they get the full mark attributed to the group; someone who is deemed not to have done their fair share has some marks subtracted from the overall group mark.

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Our son inspecting a fish from the Kalamazoo River in summer 2016

Enbridge was ordered to clean up the affected area. About seven years later, the remediation of the oil spill is close to completion. In July 2016 Enbridge was assessed a final fine of $61 million; counting what they have spent on remediation, the company’s total tab is probably over $100 million. The long-term ecological cost, meanwhile, is impossible to estimate. Nonetheless, the media is now starting to talk about how the river is “better than ever.” Sure, a lot has been accomplished, and I’m willing to take my kids kayaking in the river, though I wouldn’t eat the fish. But there are many toxic legacies that will persist.

Some might contend that 2010 hardly qualifies as “history” – and I have some sympathy for this perspective. But from a pedagogical point of view, to 17- and 18-year-olds in my class, 2010 seems like half a lifetime ago because, well, for them it almost is. The majority of my students grew up in or within a few hours of Kalamazoo yet many, if not most, hadn’t previously heard of the spill (as a complete digression, I can’t resist mentioning that part of the reason for so many local students is the Kalamazoo Promise, which provides four years of tuition at any university/college in Michigan for those who attend K-12 in the Kalamazoo Public School system).

In addition to instilling a critical approach to assessing and sifting information, this Kalamazoo River oil spill assignment also teaches specific environmental history and policy skills. It provides some context for the spills that occur on a daily basis all over the continent, as well as pipeline controversies such as the Keystone XL and the Dakota Access. Or the ticking time bomb that is the pipeline running under the Straits of Mackinac – which just happens to also be owned by Enbridge, and which is older than the line that ruptured near Kalamazoo. Submersible footage shows that supports are missing from the Mackinac pipeline, while other parts are buried under sediment, making a spill likely inevitable, and difficult to detect and stop; and since the straits connect Lakes Michigan and Huron, computer modeling indicates that the oil would spread quickly, with catastrophic results.

It is easy to assume that today’s university students are thinking critically about what they encounter online. After all, they are pretty much born with a smart phone in their hand, and so much of their lives is virtual. And maybe some of them are skeptical about content on Facebook or The Onion, where they knew the person who created the content, or are aware it is satire. But whether they extend incredulity to “official” sources, such as real newspapers and new sites, is another issue. For many of my students, discovering that the media often doesn’t get it right, or is biased or uninformed (which turns out to be the case for the Kalamazoo River spill), can be both new and disconcerting.

Granted, not every campus is necessarily situated near a river or natural feature that has received major media scrutiny. But the approach of this Kalamazoo River oil spill assignment could, I think, be adapted to environments close to virtually any campus (and it need not be limited to environmental history, nor even the discipline of history). I’ve been toying with the idea of switching it up at some point and substituting the Flint River for the Kalamazoo, since the former is also somewhat local, more recent, and received greater media attention. Indeed, because it turned into such a national story, Flint might work well as a media literacy exercise even at places of higher learning outside Michigan.

In the end, analyzing newspaper articles from 2010 requires the same critical thinking and builds the same skills as examining articles from, say, 1960. Or 2017, for that matter. In the current political climate, there is a lot of hand-wringing about the death of “facts” – but I wonder if that misconstrues the situation, since what constitutes a “fact” can be awfully problematic. It seems to me that the bigger problem is a lack of appeals to, and respect for, “evidence”. If the learning outcomes of this assignment are that students can effectively evaluate and coherently apply evidence, particularly as it applies to the media, and retain some other information about energy and environment, then I’m satisfied.

 

 

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Daniel is an Assistant Professor in the Institute of the Environment and Sustainability at Western Michigan University. He is a co-editor of The Otter and is a member of the NiCHE executive board. A transnational environmental historian who focuses on Canadian-American border waters, particularly in the Great Lakes-St. Lawrence basin, Daniel is the author of "Negotiating a River: Canada, the US, and the Creation of the St. Lawrence Seaway" and co-editor of "Border Flows: A Century of the Canadian-American Water Relationship." He is co-editing a collection on the International Joint Commission, completing a book on Niagara Falls, and doing research on the history of Great Lakes water levels and other environmental diplomacy issues. Website: https://danielmacfarlane.wordpress.com Twitter: @Danny__Mac__