1 year later, Michigan oil spill cleanup is costly, complex, ongoing

The oil is still there - along parts of the river bottom, on turtles brought to a wildlife recovery center, as sheen on the water surface. A year after a pipeline rupture sent at least 819,000 gallons of oil into a Kalamazoo River tributary, 40 miles of the river remain closed to recreation. Crews continue to pull submerged oil from the stream and its tributaries a year after what may be Michigan's worst environmental disaster.
Tribune News Service
Jul 26, 2011

The spill was reported a year ago today. Much has been done in the intervening months — 766,000 gallons of the thick crude have been recovered and Enbridge Energy Partners, the company responsible for the spill, has purchased the homes of 130 residents along the water.

“Enbridge has committed since the outset of this incident to restore the area as close as possible to its pre-existing condition, and to the satisfaction of the U.S. EPA, Michigan DEQ and the local community,” Enbridge spokesman Jason Manshum said in an e-mail. “We remain fully committed to that goal.”

The investigation into the cause of the spill may take another six months, but the effects of the spill will be felt for years. And the complexity of cleaning the largest inland oil spill in Midwest history only adds to the challenge.

“My biggest concern is that one year later we’re still trying to figure out how to clean this up,” said Deb Miller, one of several residents who testified before Congress last year about the impact of the spill.

Two hundred acres. That’s the approximate area of submerged oil believed to be in the Kalamazoo River a year after Houston-based Enbridge Energy Partners reported a spill from a pipeline in Marshall.

The finding of submerged oil, which was discovered during a reassessment of the oil cleanup this spring, is part of the explanation for the extensive cleanup now under way along parts of the river.

Although work continued even during the winter months, in recent weeks, parts of the Kalamazoo River have been abuzz with activity reminiscent of the period immediately following the spill.

Last week in sweltering heat, boats manned by workers in protective suits moved back and forth along the river above the Ceresco Dam, stirring up the oil on the river bottom in an attempt to collect it.

The magnitude of the Marshall spill is considered exceptional for an inland oil spill, government officials said.

“We’re kind of writing the book or writing new chapters in the book of oil spill recovery,” said Ralph Dollhopf, the federal on-scene coordinator and incident commander with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

The EPA has spent $29.1 million on the spill to date, money that is to be reimbursed by Enbridge, said Susan Hedman, the regional administrator for U.S. EPA Region 5. No tax dollars will be spent on the cleanup, she said.

The bulk of the oil has collected in three areas — near the Ceresco Dam, the mill pond near Battle Creek and the mouth of Morrow Lake, an impoundment of the Kalamazoo River upstream from the city of Kalamazoo.

Enbridge is working toward an EPA-mandated deadline of Aug. 31 to remove the oil, but the cleanup likely will continue beyond that time.

“Realistically, it’s becoming apparent we’ll be dealing with this for years to come,” said Jim Rutherford, Calhoun County health officer.

Risk to workers

So much oil collecting on the river bottom poses unique challenges for workers involved in the cleanup. Equipment must be retrofitted and new techniques employed.

Jason Manshum, an Enbridge spokesman, described the basic idea as using a Rototiller to agitate the oil enough so it can be collected.

Despite the issues, officials say they hope to have portions of the river open for recreation this year.

The reason for the spill remains unknown, although Free Press reports last year described hundreds of defects in the pipeline.

Peter Knudson, spokesman for the National Transportation Safety Board, said the agency hopes to have its safety investigation on the pipeline and the cause of the accident completed within six months.

When asked, among other things, how Enbridge planned to make sure a spill like the one in Marshall never happens again, Manshum noted in an e-mail that “Enbridge will evaluate all information and learnings from this incident and apply that information to all of our pipeline operations.”

On May 26, Enbridge announced plans to replace 75 miles of the same pipeline where the rupture occurred in Michigan and Indiana, according to the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration.

Beth Wallace, community outreach regional coordinator for the National Wildlife Federation’s Great Lakes Regional Center, said the group is pushing pipeline safety legislation.

She cited concerns that new pipelines, including sections of the Marshall line that are to be replaced, may be approved and installed without proper safety regulations in place.

Life changes

The spill continues to have a direct impact on life in and around the communities that line the river, such as Ceresco.

Some residents, such as Gary and Dorothy Sheldon, decided to leave.

The Sheldons took Enbridge up on its offer to buy homes within 200 feet of the river. They plan to move this week from the house in Ceresco where they have lived since 1987 to a new home about 10 miles north of Marshall.

“The damage is done, what can you do?” asked Dorothy Sheldon, 51. “I’d rather not turn my whole life around at my age.”

She credits Enbridge with living up to its commitment on the house purchase and payment for moving expenses so far.

Others, such as Deb Miller, 57, and her husband, Ken, are angry. The Millers, who operate Miller Carpet in Ceresco and live nearby, have no plans to sell, even though Ken Miller predicted Ceresco would become a ghost town with numerous houses already vacant.

Despite assurances from Enbridge about the company’s intent to restore the river, Deb Miller has her doubts.

“I doubt they will be able to clean this river to even a fraction of what it once was,” she said.

Ken Miller, 60, misses fishing the river with his grandson who just turned 13. It’s unclear when he’ll be able to fish again.

“It kind of takes things away from you,” he said of the spill.

The Millers are among the residents who want a long-term health study to be conducted.

Health problems

When the spill occurred, residents complained of a range of health effects. The stench from the oil hung heavily over the areas near the river, leading to symptoms such as sore throat, dizziness, nausea and headache.

Some residents went to hospitals, others to their doctors. Some people were removed from the area, said Rutherford, the Calhoun County health officer.

Recent air sampling has shown no problems, the EPA said, although residents have complained of random odors.

“We feel very confident that air quality is not an issue,” Dollhopf said.

Residents have expressed concerns about exposure to compounds such as benzene, which can be cancer-causing.

“As a result, we have petitioned to the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry for a long-term study of the residents that may have been impacted by the oil spill,” Rutherford said.

Rutherford sent the letter to the agency June 1, but as of Friday, had not received a response. Rutherford said the Michigan Department of Community Health said it did not have the appropriate staffing to conduct a study.

Wildlife also was affected by the spill, although images of oil-covered birds seen in the weeks after the spill have given way to those of oiled turtles. Last week, dozens of turtles were being treated for oil exposure at a wildlife recovery center near Battle Creek.

Some are cleaned — with products such as dish detergent and mayonnaise — and released. Others require long-term care.

Site manager Robert Doherty is proud of the effort. Of the almost 4,000 animals collected since last year, more than 95 percent have survived. The center even has about 50 turtle eggs waiting to hatch.

— By Eric D. Lawrence and Christina Hall/Detroit Free Press (MCT)

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