Oil lingers in Kalamazoo River (Part 1)

Apr 12, 2011

It was one of the largest oil spills in the Midwest... and it’s not over yet.

Crews are still cleaning up from last July’s oil spill in the Kalamazoo River. An oil pipeline owned by Enbridge Energy Partners ruptured... and spilled more than 840,000 gallons of heavy crude. The oil polluted Talmadge Creek and more than 30 miles of the Kalamazoo River.

Officials with the Environmental Protection Agency say most of that oil has been sucked out of the river... and tens of thousands of cubic yards of contaminated soil have been removed.

But the work is far from done.

The EPA granted me access to one of the contaminated sites on the Kalamazoo River.  I met with Mark Durno, the Deputy Incident Commander with the EPA. He’s overseeing the cleanup teams.  We stood on the bank of the river as dump trucks and loaders rumbled over a bridge out to an island in the river.

“The islands were heavily contaminated, we didn’t expect to see as much oil as we did. If you’d shovel down into the islands you’d see oil pool into the holes we’d dig."

Workers scooped out contaminated soil... hauled it to a staging area and shipped it off site.

Mark Durno says the weather will dictate what happens next. He says heavy rainstorms will probably move oil around. They won’t know how much more cleanup work they’ll have to do until they finish their spring assessment.

“Once the heavy rains recede, we’ll do an assessment over the entire stretch of river to determine whether there are substantial amounts of submerged oil in sediments that still exist in the system.”

He says if they find a lot of oil at the bottom of the river... the crews will have to remove it.

Reports that Enbridge submitted to the EPA and the state of Michigan show the type of oil spilled in the Kalamazoo River was diluted bitumen. Bitumen is a type of oil that comes from tar sands. It’s a very thick oil, and it has to be diluted in order to move through pipelines.

Mark Durno says the nature of the oil is making the cleanup more difficult.

“I truly believe the characteristics of this material is the reason we still have such a heavy operation out here. Because it was a very heavy crude, we ended up with a lot more submerged oil than we anticipated having to deal with.”

He says the cleanup could continue for another year. But that doesn’t include restoration of habitat, and that’ll take even longer. And workers will not be able to clean up every last drop of oil. Mark Durno says that’s not feasible... and it would mean damaging sensitive habitats. So he says it’s possible some oil will turn up years down the road.

Right now... more than 30 miles of the Kalamazoo River down to Morrow Lake are closed to the public. No fishing. No boating. No swimming.

The official cause of the oil spill is still under federal investigation.

Susan Hedman is the EPA Administrator for Region 5. She says Enbridge won’t be fined until the investigation is done.

“We are committed to holding Enbridge accountable. Not a single penny of taxpayer money will be used to recover this spill.”

Enbridge noted in its annual report that the cleanup has cost $550 million dollars so far.

Lorraine Grymala is a spokesperson with Enbridge.

“We expect the majority of that to be recovered through insurance. That $550 million doesn’t include fines or penalties or lawsuits related to the incident."

She says Enbridge spends millions every year to monitor their pipelines for safety.

The pipeline that broke in Marshall is part of Enbridge’s Lakehead system. The system stretches from North Dakota across Michigan into New York. Over the past decade, the federal government has documented 83 spills and other safety problems on the Lakehead System.

The pipeline system is more than 60 years old. EPA’s Mark Durno says that’s been on his mind a lot lately.

“We know this is an aging pipeline system, so we’re prepared for more frequent spills of this nature. We hope that we don’t but we have to be prepared to do it.”

On Thursday on The Environment Report, we’ll hear from people who have been directly affected by the oil spill and their worries about long term health effects.