A Year Later, Michigan Oil Spill Cleanup Continues

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One year after an oil spill, workers are still cleaning up the bottom of the Kalamazoo River in southern Michigan. An estimated 840,000 gallons leaked from a broken pipeline owned by Enbridge Energy. Life for those living near the accident site in Michigan has not returned to normal yet, and it probably won't for some time.

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In southern Michigan workers are still cleaning up thick tar-sands oil from the Kalamazoo River from a pipeline that broke one year ago near the town of Marshall. Eight hundred forty thousand gallons of oil spilled out while being shipped from Canada.

As Michigan Radio's Lindsey Smith reports, life for nearby residents is not yet back to normal.

LINDSEY SMITH: Deb Miller is standing behind her carpet store in the village of Ceresco six miles downstream from where the pipe broke a year ago. We're looking at black goopy masses as big as my fist floating on the Kalamazoo River.

Ms. DEB MILLER: The home that we live in was my husband's family home. But if it was up to me, I would've been gone the week of the spill.

SMITH: There are 200 acres that state regulators still classify as heavily contaminated from the spill last year. Here, the black clumps are in the water, on the riverbanks, on long strips of white and orange boom. There's a faint smell sort of like nail polish remover. Workers wearing neon vests dot the river banks.

At the height of the clean up, 2,500 workers stretched along 35 miles of the Kalamazoo River. Clean-up continued through the winter. Now, 500 workers are trying to collect the heavy, tar-like oil that's settled on the river bottom.

Environmental Protection Agency officials are calling this clean-up a unique challenge. No one remembers dealing with this much submerged oil in a river. But they say Enbridge Energy has been cooperative. Enbridge estimates it's cleaned up 90 percent of the oil spilled. Federal regulators though, haven't finished their investigations yet, so we still don't know how much oil actually spilled or what caused the broken pipeline.

The company has settled the vast majority of the nearly 2,400 claims, though there are at least a dozen pending lawsuits.

I tried talking to people really close to the spill site.

(Soundbite of knocking on door)

SMITH: Door after door no one answers. Some of the homes are obviously empty. Enbridge has already bought 130 homes. And Deb Miller says that's changed her neighborhood forever.

Ms. MILLER: I don't blame anyone for getting out. There's too much unknown. There's too much unknown.

SMITH: I meet Craig Ritter near the spill site. He lives about a-half-an-hour away and says he's been kayaking this section of the Kalamazoo for years. The day after the spill, he says the river looked like black death.

Mr. CRAIG RITTER: The river was black. You couldn't even hear the water. The water going over the rocks didn't sound like water going over the rocks. It almost sounded like a kid sucking on a super thick milkshake I mean it was just...

(Soundbite of slurping noise).

SMITH: We head behind an abandoned river-front ranch with a porta-john for workers parked in the driveway. Ritter says it looks way better on the surface. He shoves a stick down into the shallow water. A blue oil sheen bubbles up along with that black goopy stuff I saw at Ceresco Dam.

Mr. RITTER: That's just from a little stick stirring it up. That horrible or what? Want to go for a swim?

SMITH: Ritter looks down, wipes the sweat from his forehead and shakes his head.

Mr. RITTER: Unfortunately, I don't think that life on the river is going to be the same.

SMITH: The EPA says Enbridge must clean up the submerged oil by the end of August. But there is clearly a lot of clean-up yet to do and deadlines have been extended before.

For NPR News, I'm Lindsey Smith.

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