Oil leak spills into Michigan river

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Published: July 28,2010

Tags: disaster, energy, environment, oil and gas, oil spill

BATTLE CREEK, Mich. — Southern Michigan residents are learning that devastating oil spills aren’t limited to the Gulf Coast.

Crews were working today to contain and clean up an estimated 877,000 gallons of oil that coated birds and fish as it poured into a creek and flowed into the Kalamazoo River, one of the state’s major waterways.

Michigan Gov. Jennifer Granholm toured the area by helicopter last night and said she wasn’t satisfied with the response to the spill. The leak in the 30-inch pipeline, which was built in 1969 and carries about 8 million gallons of oil daily from Griffith, Indiana, to Sarnia, Ontario, was detected early Monday.

“There needs to be a lot more done,” Granholm said. “There are not enough resources on the river right now.”

Granholm declared a state of disaster in Calhoun County and potentially affected areas along the river, which eventually bisects the city of Kalamazoo and meanders to Saugatuck, where it empties into Lake Michigan. Officials don’t believe oil will spread past a dam upstream of Kalamazoo. The cause of the spill is under investigation.

Calgary, Alberta-based Enbridge Inc.’s affiliate Enbridge Energy Partners LP of Houston initially estimated that about 819,000 gallons of oil spilled into Talmadge Creek before the company stopped the flow.

But state officials were told during a company briefing yesterday that an estimated 877,000 gallons spilled, said Mary Dettloff, spokeswoman for the Michigan Department of Natural Resources and Environment.

As of late yesterday, oil was reported in at least 16 miles of the Kalamazoo River downstream of the spill. Company officials said the spill appeared to be contained and oil wouldn’t likely drift much more downstream.

Enbridge crews and contractors are using oil skimmers and absorbent booms to minimize its environmental impact.

“This is our responsibility,” Enbridge’s president and chief executive Patrick D. Daniel said yesterday evening in Battle Creek. “This is our mess. We’re going to clean it up.”

Many area residents were surprised to learn that a pipeline was so close to the Great Lakes river.

“I just can’t believe they allowed that to happen, and they’re not equipped to handle it,” said Owen Smith, 53, of Galesburg. Smith lives near the river and stopped at several points far upstream on Tuesday to see what might be headed his way.

The air was pungent with the smell of oil, but health officials said they so far were satisfied with the results from air quality tests. Groundwater testing was expected to begin soon.

Still, health officials warned residents to stay away from the river, saying it should be closed to fishing and other recreational activities, and irrigation. No injuries or illnesses have been reported, but a few households near the spill had been evacuated.

Enbridge said it had about 200 employees and contractors working on the spill, and a center was being set up to help ducks, geese and other wildlife coated with oil.

Local, state and federal agencies also were involved, and the National Transportation Safety Board launched an investigation.

U.S. Rep. Mark Schauer, a Michigan Democrat, said he discussed the spill with President Barack Obama. Schauer called the spill a “public health crisis,” and said he plans to hold hearings to examine the response.

Obama has pledged a swift response to requests for assistance, White House spokesman Matt Lehrich said.

The river already faced major pollution issues. An 80-mile segment of the river and five miles of a tributary, Portage Creek, were placed on the federal Superfund list of high-priority hazardous waste sites in 1990. The Kalamazoo site also includes four landfills and several defunct paper mills.

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