In late summer of 2010, while the nation was fixated on the massive oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, an underground pipeline in Michigan also began gushing oil. My job has been to help investigate the environmental damage that spill caused when the oil flowed into the Kalamazoo River.
More than 800,000 gallons of crude oil** poured out of the leaking pipeline before it was eventually shut off. It oozed through the soft, wet ground just outside of Marshall, Mich., before washing into the Kalamazoo River, one of the largest rivers in southern Michigan.
I was at a meeting in Milwaukee with my suitcase full of sandals and skirts — not exactly dressed for an oil spill — when I got called to the scene. I drove nearly nonstop to Marshall, with only a quick detour in Indiana to buy steel-toed boots and work pants.
When I arrived, the other scientists and I made plans to collect data on the oil’s damage. Heavy rains had caused the river to flood over its banks, and as the oil flowed approximately forty miles* down the Kalamazoo, it was also carried up onto the banks and into trees. As the flood waters receded, oil was left on overhanging branches and in floodplains.
The river’s floodplains, full of forests and wetlands, are also home to sensitive seasonal ponds, which provide valuable habitat for fish and macroinvertebrates (aquatic “bugs” at the base of the food chain). Therefore, we needed to find out: how far did the oil make it into the floodplain, what did it contact while there, and how much oil was left?
The smell of oil was sickeningly strong at first. Residents evacuated the houses nearest to the leak, and workers within half a mile of the pipeline break had to wear respirators to protect them from inhaling fumes. Even a dozen miles downstream, I could smell the oil and feel the fumes irritating my eyes. These fumes were the light components of the oil evaporating into the air. The heavy components of the oil were left behind on the banks or gradually sank to the bottom of the river.
The sunken oil has proven difficult to clean up. This winter, spill responders have been working to quantify how much sunken oil is left and to develop and test techniques for cleaning it up.
Along with my team from NOAA’s Office of Response and Restoration, the U. S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the State of Michigan, and the Huron Band and Gun Lake Tribe of the Potawatomi joined together as trustees to assess damages that the spill caused to natural resources.
We’ve conducted a variety of studies to collect information on the impacts of the spill and repeated some of the studies to see how the environment is recovering. Now we’re gathering all this data for the official damage assessment. We’ve examined samples of fish, mussels, water, and sediments for evidence of oil-related chemicals. We’ve collected observations of oiled vegetation and records of the number and condition of animals brought to the wildlife rehab center.
Unfortunately, cleanup-related activities have an environmental impact too. For example, extra boat traffic on the river during cleanup led to some riverbank erosion and crushed freshwater mussels. Our studies include these factors too. We’ll also look into the effect the spill had on public recreation (the river has been closed to the public since the spill) and on tribal cultural uses.
We and the other trustees will seek out restoration projects that address the impacts caused by the spill, being careful to balance the projects with the results of our studies. We’ll take project ideas from the public and from watershed organizations to make sure that we choose projects that fit in well with other restoration work being done across the broader Kalamazoo River watershed.
Enbridge Energy, as the owner of the pipeline, will have the option to implement the projects themselves with oversight from us trustees, or could pay for the cost of these projects as part of a larger legal settlement.
Stay tuned and we’ll keep you updated as this story unfolds.
*Correction: This originally stated that the oil flowed thirty miles down the Kalamazoo River.
**This was later discovered to be an oil sands (or tar sands) product.