Wildlife rescue escalates along Mich. river oil spill; environmentalists worry about long-term

By Tim Martin, AP
Friday, July 30, 2010

Wildlife rescue escalates at Mich. river oil spill

MARSHALL, Mich. — Volunteers and government officials scrambled on Friday to save geese and other wildlife damaged by an oil spill in a southern Michigan river as the Canadian company that owns the ruptured pipeline said the crude had been contained.

Enbridge Inc., based in Calgary, Alberta, said it was preparing to remove the damaged section of pipe as its focus shifted to cleaning up the spilled oil in the Kalamazoo River, which it estimates at 820,000 gallons. The Environmental Protection Agency puts the total at more than 1 million gallons.

The oil is contained by boom and other devices that can keep it in place until vacuum equipment can suck it up, company spokesman Alan Roth said. More than 70 vacuum trucks and three dozen boats had been deployed for the task.

“It’s been captured, it’s not going anywhere,” Roth said.

Company and federal officials say they don’t believe the oil will reach Lake Michigan, where the river empties about 80 miles from where the oil has been contained. But EPA officials say it could take a couple of months to clean up the spill, and the cause is under investigation.

Gov. Jennifer Granholm, who criticized the containment efforts earlier this week, said that after a Friday helicopter ride over the spill area, she thinks there’s been noticeable improvement in recent days. Granholm said she did not see any sheen of oil on Morrow Lake, a key point in Kalamazoo County where officials aim to stop the spread of the oil.

“I can say there’s been significant progress,” Granholm said at a news conference in Battle Creek.

She added: “I don’t want to suggest we are satisfied. We continue to ask for additional resources.”

EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson, who was also in the helicopter, said she was “very confident” the oil won’t reach Lake Michigan.

Enbridge said Friday it had recovered 100,800 gallons of oil and estimated that 420,000 gallons are in a holding area and will be pumped into tanks.

“No one is sugarcoating it,” Roth said. “There’s still a tremendous amount of work to do but good progress is being made.”

Federal and company officials said they were close to reaching the 40-foot section of pipe containing the break, which has been inaccessible because it’s in a marshy, oil-covered area. Only when the pipe is reached will it be certain that the leak has stopped, said Ralph Dollhopf, EPA’s on-scene coordinator.

Once removed, the section will be taken to a National Transportation Safety Board lab for tests, said Matt Nicholson, the agency’s lead investigator.

A team from NTSB’s Office of Pipelines and Hazardous Materials division will be on site for up to 10 days, he said.

Company executives Friday stuck by their timeline of events, saying it took until 11:30 a.m. EDT Monday to confirm the leak was happening and they first attempted to report it at 1 p.m., although it took a half-hour for the call to get through.

Explaining the delay between the discovery and the report, company president Patrick Daniel said Enbridge had tried to determine how much oil had escaped.

“We can’t just call and say we have a leak,” he said. “We need to be able to give them some idea of the quantity.”

U.S. Rep. Mark Schauer, a Democrat from Battle Creek, and local leaders say the spill may have begun Sunday night — when a number of area residents called 911 to report foul odors — and have criticized the company for taking so long to report it.

Michigan Attorney General Mike Cox said his office was investigating the spill. Spokesman John Sellek said Michigan law gives state agencies authority to deal with water quality separately from EPA.

Local officials continued tracking down people living near the spill on Friday and advising them to evacuate. Of 61 households visited, 14 agreed to leave while 27 declined. The others couldn’t be reached.

Scientists fear the worst may be yet to come for fish in the river. Jay Wesley, a biologist with the state of Michigan, said the oil spill had killed fish in “very limited numbers” along the affected stretch of the river from Marshall westward into Battle Creek.

The bigger problems for fish may come within a week or so, if the oil spill results in decreased water oxygen levels. Wesley said insects, algae, frogs and turtles along the river have been killed in high numbers — which could hurt the fish food supply.

“The effects are probably going to be more long-term,” Wesley said. “We probably won’t know the full effects for weeks or months or years.”

The Marshall area has been considered a good spot for bass fishing. Recreational anglers also fish the area for northern pike, catfish and suckers. Until the spill occurred, health officials considered fish taken from the waters from Marshall to Battle Creek OK to eat in limited amounts — unlike a downstream, westward stretch from Kalamazoo that is laden with PCBs and is on the federal Superfund list of highly contaminated areas.

A wildlife rehabilitation center staffed and managed by a Enbridge contractor near Marshall had received about 50 injured animals — mostly geese — by midday Friday. During a tour, two white-suited workers were trying to clean up an oil-soaked turtle, one holding and rotating the reptile while the other dabbed it with what appeared to be a cloth.

Veterinarians and biologists said they were waiting up to 48 hours before cleaning some animals.

“It’s really hard to see them covered with oil,” said Linda Elliott of Focus Wildlife, contracted by Enbridge. “But you don’t want to put them through the decontamination process until they are stable enough and strong enough to handle it.”

The typical bird might spend up to two weeks at the center until it is banded and released back into the wild. It’s not yet known where animals will be released.

Flesher reported from Traverse City, Mich.

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