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University experts weigh in on Kalamazoo River oil spill

Paul Sancya/AP
A worker monitors water in Talmadge Creek in Marshall Township, Mich., near the Kalamazoo River as oil from a ruptured pipeline, owned by Enbridge Inc, is attempted to be trapped by booms Thursday, July 29, 2010. Buy this photo

BY CAITLIN HUSTON
Daily Staff Reporter
Published August 8, 2010

As the attempt to clean up the oil spill in the Gulf Coast continues, similar efforts are currently underway to resolve a spill in the tributaries near the Kalamazoo River, and University professors are still examining the issues the local spill has left in its wake.

In a press release issued the morning of Jul. 26, Enbridge Energy Partners reported a leak in their pipeline near Marshall, Michigan in the Kalamazoo River tributaries. It is estimated that though the leak in the pipeline — which runs through the United States to Canada — was stopped the following day, it has poured around 1 million gallons of oil into the river.

Allen Burton, a professor in the School of Natural Resources and the Environment, said though some oil-coated wildlife has already been captured and cleaned up, he is concerned about the numerous aquatic organisms that have not been helped.

Burton said state monitoring is essential to determine the long-term effects on invertebrates like mussels, as well as fish and other organisms that feed on the affected invertebrates. Oil that remains in the stream, he added, is most likely deposited in the sediments and collected in areas like pools and lakes.

Because the river was in a flood stage when the spill occurred, oil likely deposited along the shoreline when water levels returned to normal, affecting wildlife in the area, Burton said.

Though a large amount of oil leaked out of the pipeline, Burton said he does not think the leak will affect Lake Michigan, as the oil will likely be deposited in smaller lakes first. Some of the oil will also be diluted as it goes downstream due to the warmer water temperatures.

Burton added that he does not believe any of the fishing industries will see any long term effects, because there are other unaffected tributaries flowing into the Kalamazoo River. Monitoring the area, however, will still be necessary to determine the level of toxicity, he said.

“I would like to think that in a period of months, any direct toxicity that happened would be over with and we would have new organisms moving in that wouldn’t be impacted,” Burton said. “But if it’s settling into the sediments, that’s going to be where the concern is because organisms in the streams will continue to be exposed.”

Peter Adriaens, a University environmental engineering professor who has worked on the Exxon Valdez and Gulf War oil spills, said because the pipeline is around 30 years old, he believes the leak was due to corrosion of the steel.

Adriaens said though there are sensors along the length of the pipe to measure changes in pressure, which would indicate a leak, temperature fluctuations and the differences in pressure that arise at pumping stations routinely make it difficult for inspectors to identify a problem. Inspectors must also be able to hear a signal above the noise of the oil being pumped at the stations, Adriaens said.

With the Kalamazoo River oil spill, Adriaens said inspectors probably did see a pressure drop but were not able to immediately discern its cause.

But because the spill occurred around a populated area, local residents reported the smell of oil and officials were able to address the leak within three days of its occurrence, Adriaens said.

Adriaens said after locating the site of the leak, officials tried to limit the extent of contamination by skimming oil off of the surface water and laying down booms — floating containment units used to enclose the oil. He added that the last step — determining how much oil is in the sediments — will take longer and could have a long-term effect on the region, proportional to the amount of residual oil.

Though this oil spill is the worst in the history of the Midwest, Adriaens said monitoring has increased over the past decade, and the number of leaks per 1,000 miles of pipeline has decreased by almost 60 percent with the amount of oil per leak also on the decline.

As the lasting effects on area wildlife are examined, the people whose homes have been affected by the spill are also assessing their possible compensation.

The affected area includes a mobile home park and 61 homes, which are in a voluntary evacuation zone, according to the Detroit Free Press.

David Uhlmann, director of the Environmental Law and Policy Program at the Law School, said Enbridge Energy Partners will compensate homeowners for their losses, but there still may be the possibility of lawsuits if homeowners believe the damage is too great.

Uhlmann also said he is concerned about the company’s response to the spill, as there have been reports that Enbridge Energy Partners may have delayed providing notice to the appropriate authorities, and it is unclear whether the response efforts were sufficient in limiting the magnitude of the leak.

Both actions could result in at least civil penalties, if not civil prosecution, Uhlmann said.

According to the Detroit Free Press, the U.S. House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure will hold a hearing on Sep. 15 in Washington D.C. to analyze the oil spill and the company’s response.


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