Oil spill may choke river life for years

Some animals rescued, but habitats’ future bleak

MARSHALL — The oil spill that dumped up to a million gallons of crude into the Kalamazoo River is expected to cause long-term damage to at least a 30-mile stretch of once pristine marshes along the river, destroying habitat for resident geese, ducks, frogs, herons, muskrats and swans for possibly years to come.
Federal and state officials whose usual job is measuring the health of wildlife are instead taking part in a sad wildlife safari along the river, rescuing as many animals as they can find. At least a dozen boats are involved in the effort, with some of the crew going on foot.

Some creatures are lucky, such as a 10-inch turtle rescued Friday whose body was layered in oil as thick as tar, except for two tiny holes for its nose and two eye slits. But fish and birds have fled, and the insects, mussels and frogs that are the base of the food chain for them have died, suffocated by the oil.
When the fish and birds return, they may have nothing to eat.

The spill’s damage is a double whammy for migrating birds, such as the endangered lesser scaup, which stops in the area in the fall on its way to winter grounds in the Gulf of Mexico, hit by the BP oil spill.

“I’m not going to sugarcoat it,” said Mark Durno, deputy incident commander for the Environmental Protection Agency. “Much of the shoreline east of Battle Creek is trashed. We will be here for months, not weeks, cleaning this up.”

Crews hunt to save wildlife

On a warm, cloudless day, wearing meltingly hot protective suits, waders and life vests, Matt Smith and Scott Hanshue, employees of the Department of Natural Resources and Environment’s fisheries division, pursue their prey: turtles.

Within a couple of hours, pushing their boat over oil-soaked booms, they find seven turtles and a muskrat amid the black, oily vegetation of the Kalamazoo River. The muskrat scoots away, but the turtles are hauled aboard the boat in buckets. The creatures breathe through their skin, which is covered with oil as thick as roofing tar.

The turtles are taken to a wildlife rehabilitation center set up by pipeline operator Enbridge Energy Partners and Focus Wildlife, where oily geese, swans, a heron, frogs, mallards, a red-winged blackbird, muskrats and turtles get a thorough scrubbing after a medical checkup. They will eventually be released back into the wild.

But the wild areas they were rescued from won’t be the same for a long time.

Barring heavy rains, the spill of as much as 1 million gallons of crude oil two weeks ago is well-contained, but damage to the shoreline and marshes in a 30-mile stretch downstream could take years to repair.
“We’re bracing ourselves,” said Jeff Spoelstra, coordinator of the Kalamazoo Watershed Council.

The council had planned its first-ever water festival for this Saturday to celebrate the river’s recovery after the start of a cleanup of decades of polychlorinated biphenyl contamination. The PCBs were dumped into the river over decades by paper mills and factories.

Now, the council will be mourning the worst oil spill in Michigan’s history in a section of river that was a relatively pristine animal habitat and provided premier waters for smallmouth bass fishing.

The festival’s waterfront activities are canceled because swimming, boating and fishing are banned along the river. State officials said that could last the rest of the summer.

The search for survivors

The wildlife recovery effort started within a day of the spill, and more than 160 animals have been recovered, while 36 have been found dead. About 100 people from the DNRE and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service go out each day in response to calls from residents and search the riverbank for survivors.
The public is not allowed anywhere near the spill itself.

Below the 5-acre spill site, where Talmadge Creek comes into the Kalamazoo River, black muck coats plants and tree leaves. A stand of cattails along the river has clear black marks 2 feet up, a sign of the river’s rise just before the spill, which spread the damage even farther. Oil went into the floodplain, which stretches as much as half a mile in some spots, said Stephen Hamilton, a professor at Michigan State University’s Kellogg Biological Station in Hickory Corners.

From a DNRE boat Friday, it appeared the damage is uneven. Most of the turtles Smith and Hanshue captured in nets were thickly covered with oil, but one or two had only a light covering. The muskrat that evaded capture appeared to have only slightly oiled fur.

Along the shore, some areas are completely blackened; others were spared because logs diverted the mucky flow.

Cleanup could be harmful, too

No one knows how long the cleanup will take or how much it will cost. The leaders of Enbridge and the Environmental Protection Agency have pledged to return the river to its pre-spill state, but they acknowledge it won’t be easy.

Hamilton said the cleanup could make matters worse by causing more damage. Some areas, especially near the spill site and Talmadge Creek, are so thickly oiled that they’ll have to be dug up and the soil removed. But that will take out vegetation and hurt wetlands and marshes, he said.

Hamilton said a 100% cleanup might not be possible. Fortunately, oil, unlike PCBs, biodegrades over time.

Relocating wildlife also is noble, but it’s not clear whether those animals will survive, since they may be moved into areas that already are at capacity for their species, he said.

The cost and time it takes for cleanup vary widely. The tiny town of Avila Beach, Calif., was rebuilt in about two years, starting in 1999, by Unocal, a petroleum company that spilled 400,000 gallons of mixed crude and gasoline over decades, undetected, from a 2-mile pipeline that ran underground near the beachfront town. The company agreed to spend $18 million on the cleanup, knocking down and rebuilding houses and businesses and hauling away contaminated soil.
Not far away, Unocal spent another $43 million to clean up a 15-million gallon spill that leaked from corroded pipeline over 40 years. That cleanup involved sensitive dunes, marshes and wetlands over nearly 3,000 acres and took about a decade.

So far, the EPA said it has spent $4.4 million on its work alone near Marshall. Estimates weren’t available for other agencies involved in the oil spill cleanup efforts or for Enbridge. The company will be required to reimburse the government every penny, said Susan Hedman, EPA regional administrator.
In Marshall, the cleanup is really just getting started. Ground zero, the 5-acre site of the spill, has had surface oil cleaned up, but there’s plenty of contaminated vegetation. The river’s edges are still lit eerily at night as hundreds of workers suck up millions of barrels of oily water from Talmadge Creek, where the oil spilled first, and the river. When it rains, as it did last week, more oil from the heavily contaminated vegetation washes into the water.
Impact tough to measure.

The scrubbed animals are the visible signs of the spill’s environmental effects. Far more of the carnage is invisible. Most of the effort on the spill so far has been focused on stopping the oil from moving farther, not on what the damage to species or underwater life might be. “We’re just now starting to shift from crisis to cleanup,” said Mark Durno, deputy commander for the EPA at the site.

“It’s difficult to see how many individuals or species are being impacted,” said John Coluccy, manager of conservation planning for Ducks Unlimited in the Great Lakes. “It’s probably a lot worse than we think.”

Bugs, plankton, algae, frogs and mussels, which form the base of the food web for fish and birds, were oiled and likely didn’t survive. Birds, fish and mammals who fled when the spill happened will find slim eating when they try to return.

Besides the birds that live along the river year-round, there are migratory species that will try to land in the marshes along the river come fall, Coluccy said. The marshes provide habitat and cover for the birds on their way south. “Those birds are at serious risk,” he said.

Sept. 1 is the start of early hunting for geese, said Jason Dinsmore of the National Wildlife Federation, who toured the river Friday. “We’ll have to work to make sure hunters know not to eat them,” he said.

There is good news: Relatively few fish have died in the spill. Fish can move when they sense a threat, Hamilton said. Fish can die as microbes break down any oil left in the water because the process robs oxygen from the river. But so far, Hamilton’s own measurements show there has not been much depletion of the oxygen in the water.

Jim Dexter, Lake Michigan basin coordinator for the state’s fisheries division, said there still could be fish kills, since oil-soaked vegetation is dying and decaying in the water, which also depletes oxygen.

Coluccy said the animal world is resilient, but can take only so much.
“It takes a lot of time and money to get them back,” he said. “How long it takes to recover depends on how good the cleanup will be.”

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