From a Reader: I was trapped on the highway during the Tucson spill. Now, I won’t stay silent about similar dangers in Michigan.

Reader Christopher Cosmos, whose experience during the Tuscan Spill made him think about the potential for similar disasters in Michigan. Photo courtesy of the writer.

By 'Gander Reader

March 30, 2023

“I weighed my options: I could get out of my car and leave on foot and thus expose myself even more, or stay put, unable to move or drive anywhere, as the poison came closer and closer and I’d be exposed to more and for a longer time, completely unable to do anything about it or get away.”

Michigander Christopher Cosmos was stuck in traffic in Arizona, after an overturned truck spilled hazardous materials onto the highway. He’s sharing his experience—and his desire for more regulations in Michigan—in hopes that the next disaster can be avoided. 

On Feb. 14, I was driving from Los Angeles back home to Michigan via stops in El Paso, Austin, New Orleans, and Nashville. And on I-10 just east of Tucson near Rita Ranch, traffic came to a standstill.

A standstill was nothing unusual. In my time driving around the country for the previous month, I’d been in plenty of them—the result of either construction, an accident, or simply just traffic.

Then, the sirens came.

There was a sea of red flashing lights in my rearview and I watched as police cars, ambulances, and fire trucks sped past me on the shoulder heading towards a point just ahead. Then more came. And then even more, and they kept coming, until there were more emergency responders and vehicles in one place than I’d ever seen before in my life.

So, a really bad accident then, I thought.

I’d soon find out I was right. I’d also find out it was much more than that, too.

As an hour passed and traffic didn’t move even a single inch, people rolled down their windows, some got out of their vehicles and walked around, talked with each other, spoke on the phone. 

Then, my own phone buzzed. 

It wasn’t the buzz of a text message, though, but a different sound.

I looked down.

It was an emergency alert saying that hazardous material had been released, and that all individuals within a one-mile radius needed to shelter in place and turn off heaters and air conditioning units that brought in any outside air.

I immediately turned off my A/C, rolled up my windows, grabbed the KN95 mask I’ve kept in my car during COVID-19, and put it on. Around me on the expressway, I watched as people looked down at their phones then jumped back into their cars and did the same. I looked in front of me.

I estimated I was a quarter mile from where the orange and poisonous gas was rising from the accident—so well within the one-mile shelter-in-place radius (which was soon extended to three miles)—and with the swirling 30+ mph winds blowing the gas north and west and towards where I sat in my car, I knew I was directly in the path of the fumes.

I weighed my options: I could get out of my car and leave on foot and thus expose myself even more, or stay put, unable to move or drive anywhere, as the poison came closer and closer and I’d be exposed to more and for a longer time, completely unable to do anything about it or get away.

I tightened my mask and stayed in my car.

On the radio, I heard they were evacuating nearby hotels, homes, and businesses. Soon, the cars in front of me started moving, ever so slightly, as police opened a median crossing to get to the opposite westbound lane and towards an exit behind where we’d been stuck.

The median was deep and rocky where I was, and I had to drive closer to the spill to get to the crossing.

Then, once I reached it and the opposite lane, I still wasn’t able to get away as there was so much traffic that it took another 45 minutes until I was even off the expressway, because of all the bottle-necked vehicles exiting onto the small rural road in the tight valley east of Tucson, where the spill occurred.

While I was on the ramp, my mom called me, and after I told her what was happening, there was a pause.

“Are you safe?” she asked.

“I don’t think so,” I told her.

“Are you scared?”

I hesitated for a moment, then told her honestly, for the very first time in my life: “Yes,” I said. “I am.”

I estimate it took me another two hours to get beyond the three-mile radius, but with the 30+ mph winds and chronic history of authorities understating the area affected in situations similar to this one, I don’t really know how long it was until I was away from what I later learned was nitric acid that had been spilled—or how much I’d ingested.

My first response was anger, as there are so many in this country and beyond that would call for de-regulation in any shape and form they can call for it and it leads to situations like this that irrevocably damage people’s lives, communities, and of course the trajectory and health of the entire planet we’ve inherited and been entrusted with, which of course in turn affects our health, as well.

My second response was to question why it had been me that had been put into this potentially life-altering situation. I’m an author, and when I travel I stop at bookstores and introduce myself to booksellers and sign copies of my novel they have in stock, and only moments before, and on a whim, I’d stopped in Tucson to do exactly that at the local Barnes & Noble.

What if I hadn’t stopped?

I would have been beyond the crash and spill, and I wouldn’t have been a part of it.

I was, though, and so my third and final thought was that I was going to take the anger, and fear, and confusion, and everything else I felt and tell my story and share what it was like in the hope that it might help prevent similar things from happening in the future, as they are a much, much, much too common occurrence and threat. 

Just a few current examples:

At Standing Rock in 2016, protests that reached thousands-strong broke out as the Dakota Access Pipeline was placed under part of Lake Oahe near the Standing Rock Reservation, which many members of the tribe and beyond consider to be a grave threat to the region and community’s water supply—as well as destroying ancient and sacred sites and burial grounds.

The project was deemed safe and ordered to continue and opened in June 2017. In the first six months alone, once it opened, the pipeline had at least five known leaks, ranging from 20 gallons of oil to 168 gallons, and on September 15, 2022, was approved to increase the flow of oil from 570,000 barrels per day to as many as 1.1 million.

Currently, in East Palestine, Ohio, there is another similar tragedy that’s been unfolding and that will most assuredly affect the lives of an entire community and beyond for a generation or more. And while at least at the time of writing this story the cause of the crash is still being investigated, we do know it was at least partially caused by a wheel bearing overheating to a dangerous degree and that the spiking temperature and overheating was detected at various points along the route. However, the train wasn’t stopped quickly enough because the temperature at which it must stop isn’t regulated by the federal government, but rather controlled by a rail company that’s spent decades and millions lobbying against increased rail safety measures.

And for me, personally, it also hits entirely too close to home—the same as I’m sure it does for so many of you who also live in Michigan, where the Enbridge Line 5 pipeline that runs under the Straits of Mackinac is currently in a protracted legal battle after it was ordered shut down and Enbridge ignored the order and continued to operate. 

Opponents of the pipeline in its current form, including Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer and Attorney General Dana Nessel, argue that Enbridge has committed “persistent and incurable” easement violations, and Gov. Whitmer has also added that “Enbridge has imposed on the people of Michigan an unacceptable risk of a catastrophic oil spill in the Great Lakes that could devastate our economy and way of life.”

Enbridge makes $1.6-$2 million daily off the pipeline and has consistently downplayed the threat of a leak as negligible. 

What does history tell us, though?

It tells us that Line 5 has already spilled at least 1.1 million gallons of oil since 1967, and this is also the same company responsible for the Kalamazoo River oil spill in 2010, the worst oil spill into an inland waterway in US history. 

Enbridge estimates there were 840,000 gallons of oil spilled from their pipeline; the EPA puts the number at north of a million, and the Department of Transportation found a significant number of probable code violations in relation to the spill and failure to shut the pipe off for nearly 17 hours due to lack of detection—even though only ten days previously, a representative for Enbridge testified before Congress that they could detect a leak “almost instantaneously.”

The Great Lakes are the largest bodies of freshwater in the world (accounting for over 20% of all freshwater on the planet, and over 90% of freshwater in the US), and for those of us who grew up and still live in Michigan, it’s also where so much of our food comes from, as well as the water we drink and place where we swim and vacation in the summer, how our community defines itself, thrives, and how so many who call this area home make a living.

This is just one example and one fight amongst so many, and if history tells us that leaks and accidents are inevitable, then the fight for regulation, protection, and mitigation must be won before tragedy and irrevocable damage to lives and communities that’s both predictable and all too preventable.

In addition to being an author, I’m also a screenwriter, which is the reason I was in Los Angeles, and one of the movie projects I’ve been working on is about the White Rose, which was a non-violent group that operated in Germany in 1942 and 1943. 

The screenplay begins with a paraphrased and truncated quote from Hans Scholl, one of the group’s leaders, who said, when asked why he did what he did, something along the lines of: “It’s high time we made up our minds to do something, otherwise what will we have to show in the way of resistance when all this terror is over? We will all be standing empty-handed and have no answer when we’re asked: ‘What did you do about it?’”

As I finally escaped the bottle-necked traffic around Rita Ranch and the area of the Hazmat spill outside Tucson, the anger and fear began to dissipate, at least a little bit, and all I could think about was the sentiment expressed by Scholl and how relevant it is for each passing and subsequent generation, and how too many of us, including myself, have been silent for too long about too many things.

The promise I then made to myself, as I drove away, was that I would be silent no longer.

How has my exposure to nitric acid—and being where I was, when I was—changed me physically? I don’t know. But I know how it’s changed me in ways beyond that, and how from this point forward, when I look back and ask myself, “What did you do about it?”, I’m determined to have an answer.

Will you?

Christopher Cosmos is a screenwriter and author from Grand Rapids. Find him on Instagram @christophercosmos, Twitter @XristosCosmos, and Facebook @ChristopherCosmosAuthor.

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