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Oil Spill Cleanup Continues More Than A Year Later In Michigan River After Company Misses Deadline

By Amanda Peterson Beadle

"Oil Spill Cleanup Continues More Than A Year Later In Michigan River After Company Misses Deadline"

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Cleanup crews work to remove oil from the Kalamazoo River.

In late July 2010, millions of gallons of oil flowed into the Kalamazoo River in Michigan from a leak in one of the world’s largest pipeline systems. Enbridge Energy, the Canadian company that owned the pipeline, had been warned that old pipes could rupture, according to the Detroit Free Press. And while Michigan’s spill represented only 32 percent of the amount of oil spilled per day in the BP disaster that was ongoing at the same time, it had immediate environmental consequences for the area.

And more than a year later, the cleanup from the spill — and concerns about exposure to its contents — continues. Enbridge missed an Aug. 31 deadline to remove 200 acres from the Kalamazoo River and surround bodies of water. In a letter to the Environmental Protection Agency, which imposed the deadline, Enbridge said factors such as “the expanded scope of the spill” delayed the process.

The oil removal process has had “unique challenges” because of what flowed through the pipeline — tar sands oil mixed with a diluent:

The submerged oil is the result of the diluted bitumen oil mixture that was flowing through the pipeline at the time of the rupture last July. The heavier part of the diluted bitumen sank to the bottom of the riverbed over time and mixed in with the sediment, while the lighter chemicals evaporated.

“Once summer cleanup began after the completion of the reassessment, we learned that some submerged oil locations had shifted since the reassessment and other areas expanded,” the letter reads. “The area actually worked to date has increased by 79 percent over what was identified at the end of the spring reassessment.”

The EPA is investigating this claim.

“We anticipate that over the next couple of years, we’ll probably be doing very similar work,” said Mark Durno, deputy on-scene commander for the spill response from the EPA. No one knows what was in the diluent because it is a trade secret, but tar sands oil contains sulfur and heavy metals, which remain in the river so long as there is oil present. The Michigan Messenger reported that Dr. Jennifer Gray from the Michigan Department of Community Health (MDCH) said anyone who came in contact with the river should wash with soap and water immediately to avoid irritation.

But beyond just avoiding irritation, residents near the river have shown symptoms similar to those of Gulf Coast residents and were exposed to oil as well. The MDCH released studies this summer that found no long-term health impact, which some decried as incomplete:

[Environmental Toxicologist Riki] Ott noted that just this July a peer-reviewed study of oil spill exposure found the same set of symptoms in each location. They are the identical to the ones being seen in Calhoun county. She also noted that the studies have begun to identify toxicity to DNA, as well as reproductive health impacts. She says many of the chemicals of concern to occupational and environmental health officials have been shown to impact fetuses in the first trimester. [...]

“By their own admission, multiple chemicals have not been fully tested. No doctor would look at a sick patient, skip doing a full diagnosis, and declare him fit as a fiddle. Officials are prematurely drawing conclusions about the risks of tar sands oil to human health.” said Beth Wallace with the Great Lakes Regional Center of the National Wildlife Federation. [...] “A complete study on the make-up of tar sands oil needs to be conducted before we can begin to truly understand the impacts to humans, wildlife and our environment.”

But as residents continue to avoid exposure and wonder about the long-term impacts, the cleanup efforts may soon stall as the warm, summer weather wanes. Once the temperature drops too much, an EPA official said the removal of any remaining oil would stop until spring.

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