Kalamazoo River oil spill involves web of agencies

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By Cynthia Price
Legal News

There are numerous county and state governmental agencies, and Federal regulators and investigators by the score, focusing on Michigan’s oil spill in the Kalamazoo River.

Enbridge Energy Partners Ltd., a Canadian company whose pipeline rupture was responsible for the spill, is also on the scene.

Along the way, a governor, congressional representatives and top-level administrators have gotten involved.

Coordinating the on-site effort, quite a job in itself, is the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), which set up a Unified Command under Mark Durno. Susan Hedman of EPA’s Region V office in Chicago has maintained a presence at the spill site, and the national head of the EPA, Administrator Lisa Jackson, also visited.

The oil spill, which took place in tributary Talmadge Creek on July 25-26, resulted from a leak in a 30-inch pipeline that moves oil from Griffith, Ind., to Sarnia in Ontario, Canada — about eight million gallons of oil daily.

Unlike the massive British Petroleum oil spill into the ocean, the pipeline came equipped with shutoff valves, so the time when crude was gushing into the creek and from there into the Kalamazoo River was relatively brief. Nonetheless, the leak is estimated at 800,000-1,000,000 gallons.

Indeed, the spill has been called possibly the largest the Midwest has ever experienced.

Initially, Governor Granholm called the response “anemic,” but her call for help was answered, particularly by the EPA, in a manner that was more than satisfactory. EPA’s Hedman was instrumental in obtaining significant resources to address the spill, though Enbridge will ultimately be required to pay back every penny.

When Granholm joined Lisa Jackson in a fly-over inspection on July 31, Granholm thanked the Federal officials for all their hard work.

Mark Durno, along with other agency representatives, has maintained wide open communications with both the media and the public about the ongoing efforts. Daily conference calls have recorded the progress of the containment and cleanup efforts.

Initially, the fear was that severe weather would work against efforts to contain the spill before it hit Morrow Lake along the river. A particular goal was to avoid the oil reaching Lake Michigan. Bad weather never transpired, and as near as anyone can currently determine, the oil was contained within approximately five miles downstream of the original spill site. Monitoring data are available at www.epa.gov/region5/enbridgespill/.

As of Aug. 9, the workers were maintaining 37 containment points with a total of over 175,000 feet of boom deployed. Over 3.6 million gallons of mixed oil and water have been recovered, and more than 1.5million gallons of the oil-water mix have been taken off-site.

Since all indications are that the containment effort has been successful, an overlapping set of workers, still under EPA oversight, has moved into cleanup. Some of the activities this entails are vegetation washing and “soil scraping,” removing and cleaning the soil on the banks.

The EPA, Enbridge and Michigan agencies including the State Police have set up public meetings to address the widespread public concerns about the spill and advise residents about progress. The public meeting on the evening of Aug. 2 at the Marshall High School gym was nearly at capacity so another one was scheduled for Aug. 10 at Kellogg Arena in Battle Creek, with yet another to be held in Kalamazoo on Aug. 19 at a place to be determined.

Enbridge has also set up public walk-in centers, one in Marshall and a newer one in Battle Creek. There, Enbridge staff responds to claims as well as disseminates information. Enbridge has said that they will pay on all responsible claims, and has offered to purchase homes where value has gone down.

Enbridge is also paying for hotel rooms for those who are in the voluntary evacuation area set up by health officials. Another whole set of agencies, including the Michigan Department of Community Health but now spearheaded by the Calhoun County Public Health Department, has overseen investigation into the release’s health effects.

Jim Rutherford, of Calhoun County, reports that as of Aug. 9 there have been 49 visits total to emergency rooms, and about 51 contacts for poison control related to the spill. They have set up a call center, 800-306-6837, and there have been “well over” 6000 calls there. Rutherford said the nature of the calls now concerns claims and how to file them, which Enbridge hopes to direct to the walk-in centers.

Another set of agencies and groups is responsible for wildlife rescue and rehabilitation. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, working with the Michigan Department of Agri-culture’s Animal Response Team, set up the Marshall Wildlife Response Center. There are veterinarians involved as well as trained animal care volunteers, and they have had some successes. Turtles have so far been the most impacted, as might be expected, but dozens have now been cared for and returned to the wild.

There have been many concerns expressed about Enbridge’s discovering and reporting the incident. Timelines indicate that area residents started reporting strong oil odors the evening of July 25 and local fire fighters were dispatched to the site. Enbridge did not report the leak until about 1:30 p.m. July 26. Congressional representatives Mark Schauer of Michigan and Jim Oberstar of Minnesota have asked for a probe into the sequence of events.

Investigating the accident itself, in particular its physical properties and the likely cause, falls to the National Transportation Safety Board. According to  Ted Lopatkiewicz of NTSB, that agency will check into why the metal failed, and determine whether either corrosion or impact damage might have played a role — but results are weeks if not months away.

But Investigating Enbridge’s response, and whether its notification to the National Response Center was timely, falls to the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA), which is part of the U.S. Department of Transportation. Results of that investigation are also said to be far off.

It was PHMSA which issued the Corrective Action Order to Enbridge on July 28, and it is PHMSA which will determine when the pipeline can be reopened.

In response to recent criticism by the Washington Independent about its regulatory failures, PHMSA has said that the Obama Administration is working to strengthen responses and identify resources to fund PHMSA more fully.