Q&A on Enbridge oil spill - complete cleanup "not feasible"

Sep 8, 2010

It’s been more than a month since an estimated 800,000 gallons of crude oil spilled into the Kalamazoo River. Enbridge Energy Partners, the company responsible for the pipeline leak, says it has cleaned up about 700,000 gallons of that oil.

But there’s still a lot of work to be done. The EPA is just now starting to find out how much oil is at the bottom of the river.

The Environment Report's Rebecca Williams talked with Peter Adriaens about the spill.  He's an expert on oil spill cleanup, and has consulted on the cleanups of the Exxon Valdez and first Gulf War oil spills.

Here's their Q & A:

Williams: Dr. Adriaens, how long do you think it’ll take to clean up this spill?

Adriaens: So assuming that the 700,000 gallons that they’ve taken out, that that is a correct estimate because clearly what they had was a water oil mixture, so there were some uncertainties in the estimate. Now the cleanup of all the visible oil is probably pretty much completed. So now we get to the point of finding the oil in the sediments and finding where the oil constituents are in the water before that it’s cleaned up. So I mean this could take years.

Williams: Years?

Adriaens: Yes, months to years.

Williams: The EPA has issued an order to Enbridge. They have until September 27th to clean up all the oil. Is there any way they can possibly meet that deadline?

Adriaens: I would say that is not feasible. Anything that is visible can probably be cleaned up by the 27th but that is not all the oil.

Williams: How is it decided that the cleanup is done?

Adriaens: It is a negotiated condition. Cleanup does not mean that everything will be removed from the environment. It means that all the exposure to toxic constituents of the oil has been stopped. And because we will not be able to find necessarily all of that oil I mean people will and kids might at some point in the future find some of these hot spots. We are finding hotspots from spills from a long time ago.

Williams: Kids might be digging in the sand and turn up oil even five, ten years from now?

Adriaens: That is correct, yes.

Williams: So what does that mean for the safety of recreation on the river?

Adriaens: After all the visible oil has been cleaned up and after they’ve done the analysis in the water that most of the concentrations of oil, if they can find them in water, are sufficiently low for our exposure, we can probably resume our activities on the river, the boating on the river, the swimming in the river and whatnot. But, anybody who is on the river has to bear in mind that not all the oil is gone, that there will still be some residue even after EPA and the Department of Environmental Quality and everybody else has agreed that the site is cleaned up or contained. There is still residue.

Williams: EPA is still, and probably for a few months at least, assessing the damage to the ecosystem. What’s your sense on what damage has been done?

Adriaens: Clearly there was impact on wildlife. There was impact on birds. Once the oil sits in the sediments, in the sand of the river, now you start looking at something called bioaccumulation. Every time you go from organism to organism in the whole food chain, there is an accumulation of oil so we don’t know yet what the long term accumulation of that residual oil in the sediment and how that will build up in the local food chain what that will be. We don’t know that yet.