One year later, cleanup of southern Michigan’s oil-polluted Kalamazoo River poses challenge

MARSHALL, Mich. – A year after one of the largest oil spills in the history of the U.S. Midwest, cleanup crews still toil along the Kalamazoo River in southern Michigan – and it won’t surprise some regulators and residents if they remain working in a more limited capacity next summer and beyond.

Less than 10 per cent of the more than three million litres (800,000 gallons) that Enbridge Inc. confirmed was leaking from one of its pipelines on July 26, 2010 remains uncollected. Most of it has settled at the river bottom, and removing it is a tricky task that will take time to complete.

About 550 people continue to work on the Kalamazoo River cleanup, down from about 2,500 at its peak last year.

“Capturing and cleaning up this heavy oil is a unique challenge,” said Susan Hedman, a regional administrator for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. “No one at EPA can remember dealing with this much submerged oil in a river.”

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Airboats carry workers who agitate the soil with rototillers and other equipment. The oil rises to the surface where it’s trapped and removed. Yellow, white and orange containment booms float at key spots of the river to help prevent oil from escaping to cleaner locations.

Crews built makeshift roads to get heavy equipment in and out of tight work spaces along the river. Small islands have been dredged or replaced completely in areas where oil contamination was severe.

More than 55 kilometres of the Kalamazoo and a nearby creek remain closed to the public in Calhoun and Kalamazoo counties, where the spill was contained last year about 130 kilometres east of where the river empties into Lake Michigan. It’s possible that some affected segments of the Kalamazoo could reopen to limited recreation in mid-to-late August, depending on the results of ongoing studies and how the cleanup progresses. But other segments are unlikely to reopen this year.

Shady Bend Campground, nestled along the Kalamazoo River near Augusta, remains closed this summer so work crews can use it at as an access point. The site’s appeal as a campground would be limited because visitors wouldn’t have been allowed to use the river for boating, swimming or fishing.

“All we care about is that it’s cleaned up right so future generations can go back to enjoying this like they used to,” said Diane LeBlanc, a campground owner.

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Much of the submerged oil covering roughly 200 acres (80 hectares) is concentrated at three natural collection points – a dam near Ceresco, a pond near Battle Creek and approaching Morrow Lake in Kalamazoo County.

Calgary-based Enbridge (TSX:ENB) is under orders from the EPA to clean up the submerged oil by Aug. 31. But regulators say it’s possible for pockets of oil to move or not be identified yet, meaning cleanup could continue in some locations for a couple of years.

The National Transportation Safety Board continues to investigate the cause of the accident, one of many in the past few years that have the U.S. Department of Transportation pushing for tougher pipeline safety standards.

Preliminary testing of the ruptured pipe found surface cracks and indications of corrosion. The Enbridge pipeline running from Griffith, Ind., to Sarnia, Ont. – installed in the 1960s – is part of a system that had drawn federal scrutiny long before last year’s accident. The Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration had warned Enbridge about potential problems including possible safety code violations related to monitoring pipeline corrosion.

The Michigan spill released enough oil to more than fill an Olympic-size swimming pool. It was dwarfed by the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, but was nearly 20 times bigger than this summer’s release in Montana’s Yellowstone River from an ExxonMobil pipeline.

The cleanup is expected to cost Enbridge about $550 million, not counting potential fines or legal settlements that could arise from the accident. Most of the cleanup cost will be covered by insurance. The company says it is committed to completing the cleanup, no matter how long it takes.

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Enbridge spokesman Jason Manshum said no date has been marked on the calendar. “We are here until the job is done,” he said.

Enbridge was required to make numerous repairs to its pipeline as a requirement for restarting, including replacement of a section beneath the St. Clair River in southeast Michigan. The company says it hasn’t had any issues with the pipeline since it resumed oil flow last September.

Enbridge has bought 125 properties, mostly homes from residents who decided to leave the shoreline after the accident, and is working toward buying another 18 properties. The spill left more than 3,000 turtles, birds and other animals in need of rescue or rehabilitation including about 40 turtles now being rehabilitated.

Monitoring of water, air and soil will continue, and work is progressing toward possible long-range health studies. Some residents have concerns about possible long-range health effects from the spill, including elevated benzene levels in the air at the time of the accident.

“Will it ever be what it was before the spill? I say no,” said Deb Miller, who lives near the Ceresco dam. “Will there be a level of usage? Probably. I know that I won’t be comfortable putting my children or my grandchildren in that river, probably ever.”

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