CLEANING UP: Cleaning up a devastating oil spill in Michigan will take hard work, time and money

by ejmagazine

A cleaned turtle looks out of his tank at the Wildlife Rehabilitation Center in Marshall, Mich. Photo: Carol Thompson

By Carol Thompson
FALL 2010

In a room steamy from buckets of hot water and stocked to the ceiling with Dawn dish detergent, volunteers scrub animals until they are no longer covered with slimy, brown oil.

Birds are pre-treated with mineral oil to soften the oil, soaped, and then moved down a line of water-filled tubs until the water in the tub is left clean. It takes two people — one to hold the bird and another to wash — to get a bird clean.

Before turtles can be washed, they are slathered in mayonnaise and left to marinade until the fats break down the oil. It’s easier to brush off with a toothbrush that way.

Volunteers have cleaned more than 2,000 animals at the Wildlife Rehabilitation Center in Marshall, Mich. since July 2010, when an oil pipeline sprung a leak inTalmadge Creek.

Enbridge Energy Partners, a Houston-based company that operates the pipeline, stopped the leak in early August. But by then, more than 800,000 gallons of heavy crude oil had gushed into the Talmadge Creek and Kalamazoo River, covering the wildlife and surrounding environment with sludge. It’s the biggest spill ever recorded in Michigan, says Mary Detloff, spokeswoman for the Michigan Department of Natural Resources and the Environment.

Recent oil spills in Michigan, Illinois and the Gulf of Mexico have led to the release of approximately 208 million gallons of oil into the environment. That’s more than 346 Olympic-sized swimming pools of toxic sludge.

Wildlife centers are one way to minimize the environmental effects of oil spills. Federal and state agencies, oil companies and contractors use variety of specialized methods. But cleaning up an oil spill is messy business. It’s a labor-, capital- and time-intensive process that can take years to complete.


Cleaning up hazardous oil takes boots on the ground. In the days following the Michigan spill, there were more than 2,000 contracted workers managing the disaster, says Kevin O’Connor, a spokesman for Enbridge Energy. Hoyt McMillon, a 65-year-old Ceresco resident, estimates as many as 300 people were working outside his riverfront home in the Kalamazoo River during the beginning of the cleanup, sometimes working 12-hour days.

When McMillon heard of the oil spill, he and his wife Judy prepared for the smell to hit their house. They closed the windows, turned on the air conditioning and went to bed hoping for the best. But the smell came in the night, waking the couple up a few times. It was only stronger by morning.

Then, the fumes hit Hoyt like a hangover.

The smell was mostly gone within three or four days, but when the wind was in the right direction, Hoyt could still smell the benzene — a toxic chemical that can cause dizziness, unconsciousness, blood disease or death depending on the level of exposure.

McMillon says some visitors at the FireKeeper’s Casino in Battle Creek even asked for their money back because the gas made them nauseous.

Cleanup crews focused on cleaning specific sites and moved on once the places were taken care of. Now that most of the sites are finished, most workers are focusing on decontamination areas, where they wash machinery, boats and other equipment used in the clean up.

“The vast majority were clearly out on the river and doing that sort of work,” O’Connor says.


Cleaning oil spills also is costly.

“The EPA alone has spent over $20 million, which we billed to Enbridge,” says Mark Durno, the EPA’s deputy incident commander for the spill. “I can only imagine what Enbridge’s costs are.”

Vacuum trucks collect oil and oily water out of the Kalamazoo River. Photo: Carol Thompson

Enbridge Energy’s first cost estimates are about $400 million, which doesn’t include government fines or lawsuits, O’Connor says. He expects that later estimates will be higher. Most of Enbridge’s costs went to the environmental clean-up operations.

“A lot of it is environmentally focused in terms of the cleanup,” O’Connor says.

Cleanup involved collecting oil, decontaminating affected riverbanks, finding and washing oiled wildlife and monitoring the surrounding environment.

To collect the majority of the crude oil in the rivers, the cleanup team laid boom — floating plastic tubes that sit on top of the water — at several locations to concentrate oil toward vacuum trucks that sucked it out of the water, Durno says.

Two miles of shoreline along the Tamarack Creek and 30 miles of the Kalamazoo River were covered with oil. Contaminated shores have been rinsed with low-pressure washing tools to collect oil near the vacuum mouths in the river.

Different techniques had to be used to clean up the much larger Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf, so the EPA and other government agencies have been accepting ideas for possible technology citizens, manufacturers or vendors. The EPA evaluates all the proposals and ranks them as either immediately deployable, not supporting the current incident or requiring more information. The opportunity to present innovative clean-up ideas is open to anyone.

A similar program is being hosted in Michigan. There’s a form on the EPA website that anyone can fill out and submit with a suggestion or idea for cleaning the affected area.

To respond to the contaminated wildlife,

Enbridge Energy partnered with Focus Wildlife, a company that specializes in cleaning up animals after oil spills. Together, they set up the Wildlife Rehabilitation Center in Marshall, Mich., where more than 250 volunteers have rescued animals and released them back into the wild.

MSU Fisheries and Wildlife senior Dan Myers, left, volunteers at the Wildlife Rescue Center. He enjoys interacting with the turtles while he cleans them. Photo: Carol Thompson

But cleaning wildlife is not without environmental impact. The Wildlife Response Center used an average of 77,000 gallons of water per day in August. And the oily water is collected and treated, so the separated oil is sent back to an Enbridge site and recovered and the water is filtered and returned to the source.

Battaglia, co-founder of Focus Willdife who has worked on a lot of oil spills, says the Marshall site is one of the best he’s seen because there’s room for offices and recovery workspace in the same place. The Michigan Department of Natural Resources and Environment, the EPA and Focus Wildlife all have offices in the building, making communication much easier. Battaglia dreams of mobile facilities for wildlife rescue. Focus Wildlife set up a few in Washington state, he says.

“You actually can come up with a trailer, take out a couple of hoses and start to wash birds,” Battaglia says.

EPA officials are not using chemical dispersants to clean up the spill because there are several areas on the Kalamazoo River that have threatened or endangered plants, Durno says.


The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency ordered Enbridge to clean all the visible oil from the environment by Sept. 27 — two months after the spill. They also had to have long-term operations in place for oil that had leaked into the sediment.

“The process that’s been involved to get this back to where it is has been is pretty astounding,” O’Connor says. “We certainly had issues here and there, but by and large it’s gone really well.”

The cause of the Michigan oil spill is still unknown. The National Transportation Safety Board is scheduled to finish studying the pipe’s rupture and interviewing Enbridge employees to get a clear picture of the events leading up to the spill by 2011. And the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration is completing a long-term damage assessment to evaluate the ecological damage to the Tamarack Creek and Kalamazoo River systems.

Any pure oil collected was shipped to Enbridge Energy’s refinery in Indiana so it can be recycled. Enbridge estimates 699,000 gallons of the oil will be put back into commercial use.

“All the oil that could be put back in commercial use went back to the Enbridge facility,” Durno says.

The contaminated soil and vegetation is shipped to several landfills.

Anything containing benzene is deemed hazardous material; it’s shipped to special hazardous waste landfills. More than 500,000 of soil have been shipped since September, enough to cover a football field with 300 feet of soil.


Although much of the oil has been cleaned up, McMillon is still concerned about his riverbank. The cleanup crew cut back 10 feet of brush along the river and put it in dumpsters. Now his bank is like a cliff and subject to heavy erosion.

McMillon put rocks over the soil to prevent it from slipping into the fast current of the river. The more the bank erodes, the wider and shallower the river will get, and McMillon fears a shallower river won’t support the same great fishing opportunities for which the stretch is known.

McMillon says nobody has been able to answer whether his bank will be restored. He plans to take Enbridge to court if they don’t restore it adequately.

But wildlife is coming back, McMillon says. He’s seen herrings and minnows and heard reports that more species of fish have been returning to the area.

“It’s amazing how clean it is now,” McMillon says. “You see a little bit of sheen once in a while, and when it happened I could go down there and look and see tons and tons of oil. I mean as big as your car going down the river.”

Durno is also optimistic about the cleanup, which he says is nationally significant.

“Our hope is that the ecosystem recovers within a couple years,” he says.

Monitoring the environment for damage will continue for at least the next several years, says Detloff.

“There are groundwater issues we’ll be monitoring for years,” Detloff says. The area’s groundwater flows into the river, which Detloff says makes monitoring easier. As of Oct. 28, tests have shown no signs of groundwater contamination.

“We would hope that within the next five years there’s a complete recovery of the ecosystem there,” Dettloff says.

Carol Thompson is a third-year undergraduate student studying journalism, environmental studies and agriscience at MSU. Contact her at

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