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Crews Rush To Contain Massive Oil Spill in Kalamazoo River

Crews Rush To Contain Massive Oil Spill in Kalamazoo River Jim Lynch, The Detroit News

At least 16 miles of the Kalamazoo River system have been touched by crude oil in what could rank as the Midwest's worst spill.

An unexplained rupture of an underground pipe south of Marshall has released more than 800,000 gallons of oil that has made its way to the river via Talmadge Creek.

Gov. Jennifer Granholm activated the Michigan's Emergency Operations Center in Lansing to help coordinate state resources.

Granholm toured the area by helicopter Tuesday evening, then met with state and federal officials for a briefing. She said more resources should be devoted to cleaning up the spill.

"From my perspective, the response has been anemic," she said.

Tuesday evening, a team of local, state and federal officials appeared with representatives of the Canadian energy company Enbridge to provide information about the spill, but key questions remain unanswered.

Among those is how long the pipeline, which carries crude from western Canada, had been losing oil before it was discovered. Enbridge officials said they responded immediately when sensors indicated a drop in pressure in the pipe Monday morning. Marshall Township residents initially reported a strong oil smell late Sunday evening.

Another issue is the extent of the contamination. Enbridge's Stephen Wuori said late Tuesday the oil sheen and smell had reached as far west as Fort Custer State Park near Galesburg.

"We have negatively impacted your lives and made a mess of your properties and waterways," said Patrick Daniel, Enbridge president and CEO. "We're now working around the clock to minimize the impact of that and clean up the area."

Enbridge has put together a response crew of nearly 200 people, including private contractors, 43,000 feet of containment booms for the Kalamazoo River, more than two dozen boats and 20 trucks. The company will work in conjunction with a unified command that includes the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, Calhoun County agencies, Michigan's Department of Natural Resources and Environment and the Michigan State Police.

An EPA representative said the agency will provide ultimate oversight of the project.

Steve Sachs, a 24-year-old Battle Creek resident, said it was impossible to ignore the situation.

"Residents are really noticing the odor in the air," he said. "It's fairly strong, and it's lingering with the heat. As you drive around and look at the river, it's certainly a mess."

Dozens of families relocated

Enbridge has not determined the cause of the leak, but the flow was shut down Monday morning and more immediate concerns were being addressed. As many as 30 families were relocated. Fumes from the oil contain benzene, which can cause respiratory problems in humans.

Emergency responders late Tuesday were plotting a long-term strategy for monitoring air quality. Initial air testing near the spill showed benzene contamination in the range of 1 part per million, which is about the acceptable federal limit for exposure to benzene in the workplace.

"The monitoring that has been conducted to date has not indicated that there are levels of airborne benzene in the residential areas that are immediately dangerous to human health and life," said Ralph Dollhopf, an on-scene coordinator for EPA. "However, that's not to say we are confident that those levels are acceptable for long-term exposure."

Area residents may have caught a break in that there has been plenty of rain the past two weeks. With soils saturated by moisture they may soak up less oil, making cleanup and remediation easier. But if the oil makes its way farther west along the Kalamazoo River, a different problem may loom. Roughly 80 miles of the river east from Lake Michigan is considered part of a Superfund site contaminated with PCBs.

"We don't want the oil to get that far," Daniel said.

Lawmaker vows probe

In the wake of the BP disaster in the Gulf of Mexico, elected officials wasted little time weighing in. U.S. Rep. Mark Schauer, D-Battle Creek, promised to hold hearings on the spill. "I want to find out how the hell this happened," said Schauer, who met with President Barack Obama on the issue Tuesday. "I am especially concerned about the response of the company and whether their (spill) estimates are accurate."

State Sen. Glenn Anderson, D-Westland, used the spill to support his call for a ban on drilling for oil in the Great Lakes. "Neither the state nor Michigan families can afford to pay for corporate negligence like this, and we need to be sure companies like Enbridge Energy Partners, rather than the state's taxpayers, are on the hook for costs associated with the ecological and economic damage they cause in our state," Anderson said in a press release.