JOHN GRAP / AP Enlarge
MARSHALL, Mich. - The numbers don't tell the story.
Countless ducks, geese, turtles, frogs, and muskrats that used Michigan's Kalamazoo River are just as saturated with oil as pelicans and other Gulf of Mexico wildlife.
Residents in the vicinity of Marshall and Battle Creek are just as worried about anything from public health to property values as those who live near New Orleans. Popular fishing spots where boaters went to enjoy nature's serene beauty were transformed overnight by unsightly pools of black gunk emitting nauseating and potentially dangerous fumes.
Paradise is in peril, both in the Great Lakes region and along the Gulf Coast.
In terms of sheer volume, there's no comparison, of course.
The government's estimate of 1 million gallons of oil escaping from an Enbridge Energy Partners pipeline in a wet, marshy area of Michigan's Calhoun County starting July 25 is greatly overshadowed by the 206 million gallons of crude in the Gulf from the BP Deepwater Horizon explosion and spill.
But life is more than just a numbers game.
The Kalamazoo River disaster is historic in its own right, even if it only registers a blip on the nation's radar, according to several officials at the center of the cleanup.
Susan Hedman, who became administrator of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's Great Lakes regional office in Chicago on Earth Day, 2010, told The Blade that the spill could be the largest in this part of the country in decades, possibly ever. She said people who have been at the agency much longer than she are not aware of a larger one on record in the Great Lakes region.
The leak began in a small tributary called Talmadge Creek. The National Transportation Safety Board, which expects to spend the next 12 to 18 months investigating, has said Canadian-based Enbridge's control room in Edmonton, Alberta, detected a drop in line pressure two minutes after operators started taking the pipeline near Marshall down for 10 hours of planned maintenance. It is not known if that is when the rupture started.
A short time later, Marshall firefighters responded to complaints of foul odors.
Unlike the Gulf disaster, the spill in southern Michigan was contained in less than a week.
The million-plus gallons of oil wreaked havoc on the slow-moving Kalamazoo River, which was at flood stage when the spill occurred. Shorelines and riverbanks sucked in oil as the water receded, leaving behind a trail of volatile, oily pollution in the soil.
That has raised concerns about the region's drinking water, though no problems have been detected in area groundwater or in the aquifer used by Marshall and Battle Creek. But seepage could take months to occur, said Mark Durno, the federal EPA's deputy incident commander.
The Calhoun County Public Health Department has taken the precaution of banning use of Kalamazoo River and Talmadge Creek water for irrigating crops or hydrating livestock. The river water also is not to be used for watering lawns or for pets, Jim Rutherford, county health officer, said.
People are advised not to boat, swim, kayak, canoe, or use affected segments of the waterways for recreation until further notice. They are to report any signs of oily fish anywhere along the river. They are to report any symptoms of weakness, nausea, light-headedness, or breathing difficulties immediately, he said.
"Here, the impact was always instantaneous," Ms. Hedman said. "There was so much oil released it's going to be hard to contain."
Mr. Durno said last week that there is "still a lot of oil out there, especially in the initial breakpoint near Talmadge Creek," which is just south of the Marshall city limits.
"We're not going to sugarcoat it. That marshy area still looks bad," Mr. Durno said.
He told residents that crews will be on the scene for "months, not weeks."
Unlike the Gulf coast spill, the Kalamazoo River disaster didn't occur in deep water and miles offshore.
The threat of benzene exposure - at high levels, convulsions are possible - has been so real to the 7,100 residents of the Marshall area that the Calhoun County Public Health Department analyzed more than 40,000 air samples the first week after the spill. Battle Creek has about 52,000 residents.
Although the vast majority of air samples were in the normal range, some near the spill site were high. Subsequent ones show benzene levels coming down throughout the area, Mr. Rutherford said.
At a town hall gathering in the Marshall High School gymnasium on Monday night, attended by a standing-room-only crowd of 1,000 people, Ms. Hedman pledged that her agency will someday return the Kalamazoo River to the way it was and bill Enbridge for every dime.
"The fact that a lot of the oil has been contained does not mean the job is even close to being finished," Ms. Hedman told the crowd. "I'm here to commit to you tonight that we will continue working until your river looks like this again," she added to rousing applause as she went to a slide that depicted the river before the spill.
Yet she and Becky Humphries, Michigan Department of Natural Resources and Environment director, acknowledged during an interview moments later that that is a tall order because officials must assess every tract of shoreline, foot by foot, to see what should be excavated or left alone.
They said they don't want to cause more damage to wildlife habitat and the river ecology by stripping away too much of the land.
"That's the big question: How much damage do you do going after it?" Ms. Humphries said of the embedded oil.
Stephanie Millsap, a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service contamination specialist and field supervisor from East Lansing, agreed.
"We don't want the remedy to be more damaging than the oil," she said. "It's a balancing act."
Much of the drama of the Gulf Coast disaster centers on the impact on shrimpers and commercial fishermen.
The Kalamazoo River's fishing is on a much smaller, recreational scale.
Neither the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service nor the Michigan Department of Natural Resources and Environment has come across large fish losses to date, although they said things could take a turn for the worse weeks from now if oxygen levels in the water drop.
There's one key difference in comparing the responsible parties.
Patrick D. Daniel, Enbridge president and chief executive officer, told reporters Tuesday that his company has so much faith in the cleanup effort that it is willing to pay full listing price for any home that was on the market in the area most affected by the spill. It also is willing to buy, at full appraised value, any home that wasn't up for sale before the spill.
"We're going to stand by the people of this area with a guaranteed offer to ensure that no one comes in to offer them a price for their home at an unfairly low price," Mr. Daniel said.
He said Enbridge was not compelled to make the offers because of the backlash BP has endured from the Gulf oil spill.
"Not at all," Mr. Daniel said. "This is the Enbridge culture, the Enbridge way of doing business."
One of the few advantages the Kalamazoo River spill has had over the one in the Gulf has been accessibility to wildlife.
Unlike in the Gulf, where boats have been necessary to recover birds from some barrier islands, wildlife along the Kalamazoo River has been retrieved largely by people on foot, a combination of government employees, contractors, and volunteers.
The Michigan Department of Natural Resources and Environment alone has 30 to 40 people a day looking for injured wildlife and imperiled or dead fish, said Mary Dettloff, a spokesman for the department.
The marshy areas and steep terrain can be troublesome. But the obstacles and distance aren't nearly as big as in the Gulf region, said Ashley Spratt, a U.S. Fish and Wildlife spokesman.
Valdo Calvert, a U.S. Fish and Wildlife branch director, said not all wildlife need to be caught and decontaminated. A lot depends on the amount of oil present. Many of those strong enough to get away are left alone. Capturing them could stress them out or hurt them worse than the oil, he said.
A building at the edge of Marshall, adjacent to a Denny's restaurant, became an ad hoc wildlife rehabilitation center.
With assistance from experts at Binder Park Zoo in nearby Battle Creek, state and federal officials are working with a group called Focus Wildlife to decontaminate birds and other rescued wildlife.
Founded in 2004, Focus Wildlife is based in Anacortes, Wash. A Canadian division was formed in 2007. One woman leading a tour of the facility, Linda Elliott, came all of the way from Hawaii to help decontaminate injured Michigan wildlife.
The Enbridge spill has affected a narrow, freshwater river that meanders through the southern third of the only state that lies entirely in the Great Lakes basin. The Kalamazoo River empties into Lake Michigan.
The Gulf of Mexico, which spans from Texas to Florida, has an entirely different saltwater ecology. Its effects, although far-reaching, are much more diffuse.
Although the Gulf Coast tragedy has been widely condemned even by people within the oil industry, the magnitude of it is starting to be questioned now that BP appears to be getting its deepwater well under control.
H. Sterling Burnett, senior fellow for the National Center for Policy Analysis, a conservative think tank, said in a statement released Wednesday that environmentalists made the Gulf disaster look worse than it was.
"Certainly, it's too soon to tell what long-term harms, if any, may result from the spill," Mr. Burnett wrote in an essay that appeared in a publication called The Hill. "But for the moment, it appears that we can all be thankful that the predicted doomsday scenarios promoted by the green lobby have not materialized."
A day earlier, Mr. Burnett's policy center issued a release declaring the Gulf coast situation "more hype than reality."
The magnitude of the Kalamazoo River spill is hard to gauge. State and federal environmental regulators told area residents at Monday night's town hall meeting to think in terms of months just for assessing the harm. Follow-up air, soil, and water monitoring is to continue for years.
A second town hall meeting has been scheduled for Tuesday in Battle Creek.
State and federal responders said they are highly motivated to keep the Kalamazoo spill from spreading to Lake Michigan.
As one of five Great Lakes, Lake Michigan is part of the world's largest collection of fresh surface water. Russia's Lake Baikal has more water. But the Great Lakes have the most miles of freshwater shoreline, are shared by two countries, and cover a wider geographical area.
Right now, the chances of keeping the spill from getting beyond Morrow Lake, near Kalamazoo, appear promising.
More than 99,000 feet of containment boom has been put into place at 37 locations between Talmadge Creek and Morrow Lake.
An additional 250,000 feet of boom is ready to go if the situation worsens because of heavy rain or some other factor, Mr. Durno said.
Containment booms have kept all but two minor seepages of oil out of Morrow Lake. The oil that got in was quickly captured, he said.
"We don't believe any substantial oil will get into Morrow Lake," Mr. Durno said.
The Obama Administration has authorized up to $13 million for emergency response measures along the Kalamazoo.
More money could be requested, Anne Rowan, a U.S. EPA spokesman, said.
The entire sum will be billed to Enbridge, Ms. Hedman said.
Contact Tom Henry at:
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