Life on the Kalamazoo River: oil & wildlife (part 2)

Jul 27, 2011

It was the largest inland oil spill in Midwest history... but we still don’t know exactly what it will mean for life around the river.

One year ago, a pipeline owned by Enbridge Energy broke. More than 840,000 gallons of tar sands oil polluted Talmadge Creek and the Kalamazoo River.

People who were there say the river ran black. Turtles, and muskrats and Great Blue Herons were covered in oil. It’s not clear what all this will mean for the river and the wildlife that depends on it.

“It’s really a big unknown. We don’t have much experience with oil spills in freshwater rivers in general.”

Stephen Hamilton is a professor at Michigan State University.

“This new kind of crude, the tar sands crude oil, with its different chemistry, all makes this a learning experience for everybody involved.”

Tar sands oil is very thick, and it has to be diluted in order to move through pipelines. We’ve previously reported that federal officials say the nature of this oil has made the cleanup more difficult. In fact, the cleanup has lasted longer than many people expected. The Environmental Protection Agency says there are still significant amounts of submerged oil along 35 miles of the Kalamazoo River.

Stephen Hamilton says no one knows what the long term effects of the oil spill will be.

“We suspect there were very large impacts on the base of the food chain which will have ripple effects up the food chain.”

He says research on marine mammals and fish after oil spills shows there can be organ damage and negative effects on reproduction. But he says there hasn’t been much research on freshwater oil spills.

Researchers at Michigan State University and Western Michigan University have studies underway. 

There are also six government agencies and two tribes collecting data on the river. They’re working on something called the Natural Resource Damage Assessment. That’s a report that’ll try to quantify the impact of the oil spill on wildlife and on the river ecosystem.

Enbridge - the company responsible for the oil spill - is also involved with this damage assessment.

Stephanie Millsap is with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. She says her agency and the others involved – they’re called trustees – are working with the oil company.

“Which means that the trustees and Enbridge jointly develop the study plans and jointly go out and collect the data together. That provides the basis so both Enbridge and trustees are confident in how the data was collected.”

Millsap says Enbridge will be held accountable for the costs of the damage assessment. And the company will have to pay for habitat restoration and compensate the public for loss of recreation on the river.

She says so far, their studies have found fish are less abundant in Talmadge Creek and several places in the Kalamazoo River. And they’ve found a drastic reduction in some species of insects that fish and birds rely on for food.

“It’s going to be a number of years before we fully understand what those impacts have been to the environment and to wildlife.”

Enbridge officials say the company is committed to cleaning up the oil and restoring the area to the way it was before the spill. But both the company and the EPA admit it’ll be impossible to clean up every last drop of oil.

Jason Manshum is an Enbridge spokesperson. He says right now, they’re focusing on meeting the EPA’s deadlines for cleanup.

“If there’s ever a time when we need to come back, even in an isolated area, we’ll do that. So the testing and monitoring of the watershed will go on for many years.”

But he could not say who would be responsible for doing that testing... or whether Enbridge would be liable for problems that might turn up years down the road.

Tomorrow, we’ll take a look at how well Enbridge officials have kept their promise to compensate residents for damages.