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Published: Monday, 4/23/2012

Managing oil spills

Two years ago, a spill from an oil pipeline in Michigan fouled waterways and transformed the quiet town of Marshall into a restricted area with a military presence.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency vowed to hold Enbridge Energy Partners accountable. Cities such as Toledo, which has a large network of underground pipes near Lake Erie, should heed the lessons of the spill as well.

The Enbridge spill dumped 819,000 gallons of crude oil into the Kalamazoo River. Containing the spill wasn’t easy: Heavy rains caused the river to flow over dams and carry the oil 30 miles downstream. The pollution finally was contained 80 miles from Lake Michigan.

Even with modern technology, there are data gaps for smaller oil and chemical spills. Water-treatment operators did not know for days after the 2003 blackout that a chemical plant in Ontario had spilled 290 pounds of vinyl chloride into the St. Clair River near Detroit.

An updated version of the Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement, which affects the United States and Canada, is to be signed this spring. It is expected to call for better reporting of Great Lakes-area oil and chemical spills.

In addition to the threats to public health and the environment they pose, such spills challenge the cleanup ethics of public officials. Thousands of gallons of crude oil remain embedded in the Kalamazoo River’s bed and along its banks because the land is so marshy that a complete cleanup would destroy too many high-quality wetlands.

Still, the EPA acted swiftly to mitigate damage to the Kalamazoo. Enbridge, a Canadian company, spent $700 million to clean up the mess it made and offered to buy some damaged property.

Containing the smaller-scale disaster took some of the sting out of the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. The Kalamazoo River spill provides a model for strengthening lake-based ties and improving health, safety, the environment, and property values in the Great Lakes region.



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