Michigan’s massive oil spill nears fifth anniversary

Jim Lynch
The Detroit News

Marshall — It’s been a while since small fleets of cleanup boats cruised up and down the Kalamazoo River, or yard upon yard of containment booms floated atop the waters.

It also has been a few years since contractor pickup trucks crammed the parking lots of Pastrami Joe’s or Dark Horse Brewing Company at lunchtime.

“I eat everything I catch here, haven’t had a problem once they opened this neck of the river back up,” said a man fishing in the Kalamazoo River in May.

After the nation’s largest inland oil spill occurred here in 2010, the situation has reverted to something more normal. Sunday marks the five-year anniversary of the Enbridge Energy-owned underground pipeline rupture near Marshall that spilled more than 800,000 gallons of heavy crude oil into a local creek and, eventually, the Kalamazoo River.

Major cleanup work has been completed for some time, while smaller restoration work continues. Once closed to recreation use, the river is open to kayaks and people fishing for bass or catfish. Regulatory agencies including Michigan’s Department of Environmental Quality have weighed in with fines totaling nearly $80 million.

Perhaps the last part of the story to be written is a pending decision by the U.S. Department of Justice on what size penalty it will levy against the Canadian energy company. The department said Friday it had no comment.

In May, DEQ officials announced a settlement with Enbridge totaling $75 million for work completed and still to be done. Some conservation groups found things to like about the deal, while others saw it as a slap on the wrist.

A guide tries his hand at fishing along the banks of the Kalamazoo River near Marshall, where cleanup efforts after the Enbridge oil spill in 2010 were concentrated.

State officials have been quick to point out that, in many areas, the river is now cleaner than it was before the spill. And improvements funded by Enbridge have made it more accessible.

“The impacted stretch of the Kalamazoo River was completely reopened for public use this spring, featuring three new boat access sites that allow people to more easily access and enjoy the extensive work done to restore the water, the banks and the outstanding fishery,” Gov. Rick Snyder said in a Friday statement.

“The river again is a Pure Michigan asset for canoeing and kayaking, bird watching and bass fishing — a strong statement about the dedication, commitment and relentless positive action of hundreds of people.”

Many who live and work in the communities around the Kalamazoo area have mixed feelings about the episode.

Schuler’s Restaurant & Pub has been a mainstay in Marshall for more than a century, sitting a few blocks north of the Kalamazoo River. In the days after the spill, Schuler’s was transformed into a massive catering operation that seemed to run around the clock.

Wwner Hans Schuler had to add staff to meet the food needs of hundreds of workers three times a day. The surge in business continued for months, boosting sales everywhere from restaurants to hardware stores, he said.

“It was really unfortunate, the spill itself,” Schuler said. “But we’ve learned from it in the end. And maybe we’ve benefited from it, too. It’s strengthened our concern for pipelines and how we approach them.”

Within 48 hours of the pipeline rupture, Enbridge’s then-President Patrick Daniel was in front of news cameras and microphones making strong statements about not only the company’s responsibility, but its intentions moving forward.

“We have negatively impacted your lives and made a mess of your properties and waterways,” he said at the time. “We’re now working around the clock to minimize the impact of that and clean up the area.”

Wildlife is a frequent sight along the restored Kalamazoo River. “It’s been highly successful,” Stephen Hamilton of the watershed council said about the cleanup effort.

For the most part, those who monitor the health of the Kalamazoo River feel the company has followed through on its early commitments.

“It’s been highly successful,” said Stephen Hamilton, president of the Kalamazoo River Watershed Council. “There is some submerged oil remaining in the river, but it’s been deemed not worth going after because recovery action might do more harm than good.”

Enbridge has no events planned to mark the anniversary, but issued a statement this week that described the pipeline rupture as “one of the bleakest and most humbling chapters in our company’s 65-year history.”

“We vowed at the time that we would make it right,” said Jason Manshum, a company spokesman. “Five years later, with the support and cooperation of so many in the community, we are pleased to have returned the Kalamazoo River to health, productivity, and benefit to people and nature.”

But Enbridge remains in Michigan headlines. Another pair of company pipelines, running under the Straits of Mackinac for the last 60 years, received increased scrutiny as a result of the Kalamazoo oil spill. The attention prompted Michigan to form a pipeline safety task force last year that indicated the lines didn’t meet current safety standards and might eventually need to be shut down.

But some feel the task force’s recommendations accomplished little and that what happened to the Kalamazoo five years ago did little to improve environmental protections in Michigan.

“I don’t think we can honestly say we’re any safer from catastrophic oil spills than we were five years ago,” said Andy McGlashen, communications director for the Michigan Environmental Council. “After all, the same company that caused the Kalamazoo spill is still pumping about 23 million gallons of oil a day through the heart of the Great Lakes. However, we are much more aware of the danger the pipelines pose, and that gives us the opportunity to improve safety.”

Snyder touched Friday on the lessons learned from the pipeline disaster.

“The oil spill anniversary should serve as a permanent reminder — that the state must be prepared to respond to an emergency, and that we must hold operators accountable for sharing our goal of protecting the state’s natural resources,” he said.


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