By David Hasemyer
The Kalamazoo River near Marshall, Mich. today teems with kayakers paddling amid swimming turtles, buzzing dragonflies and fish that leap from the water—with few visible scars of the environmental disaster that struck the riverside community five years ago.
The 40-mile tainted stretch of river that was closed when more than 1 million gallons of heavy crude oil spilled into it has recovered better than expected, environmental officials say. But even as the river flows clear and wildlife flourish, many of the people who woke to the stench of oil flowing past their homes say their lives will never be the same.
"When your life is turned inside out by something that runs you from your home you never really get over it," said John La Forge, who had to flee when oil backed up to his patio door.
It was in La Forge's neighborhood where an aging oil pipeline owned by Enbridge Inc. burst on July 25, 2010. By the time Enbridge shut off the flow of oil—17 hours after the rupture—the Kalamazoo ran black with oil.
The spill forced the closure of a vast section of river for nearly two years, displaced 150 families and has cost Enbridge $1.2 billion so far to clean up as the company had to take extraordinary measures to dredge the oil from the river bottom.
InsideClimate News—winner of the 2013 Pulitzer Prize for its series "Dilbit Disaster"—revisited La Forge and other witnesses to what was the biggest inland oil spill in U.S. history.
John La Forge
Occupation: Excavation contractor
Lifetime resident of Marshall
LaForge remains angry—very angry. "Enbridge can go to hell," he said. "From the moment the oil first started to leak until even now, Enbridge could care less about the people."
Within hours of the spill, La Forge, his ailing wife and adult daughter were forced to evacuate—gagging from the foul stench—with little more than what they were wearing. They would never spend another night in the house where they'd lived for 30 years.
Enbridge paid to relocate LaForge and his family in motel rooms and rental homes until a new home could be built in 2012 about 10 miles from his old place at Enbridge's expense.
"It's just a house, not a home," he said. Plus, he notes with resentment that the property tax bill on his new home is $12,000 a year, four times higher than at his old place. "Life just isn't the same anymore."
Occupation: Customer service representative
Resident of Ceresco, Mich. for 36 years
First there was the oily muck lapping at the back of the carpet store owned by Miller and her husband. Then came the shuttering of the business a few months later over fears the store presented a health hazard to employees and customers. And finally Miller watched as demolition crews prepared to bulldoze the historic building that had housed her store for 26 years.
"I couldn't watch them actually tear it down," Miller said. "It was too hard. But I knew it was another step forward."
Along the way she became a reluctant activist. "I learned you have to stand up for yourself and your family and neighbors. That's what I do now," Miller said. She worked up the courage to testify before a U.S. congressional committee investigating the spill. She confronted local and state health officials over the potential consequences of being exposed to the heavy crude oil.
"I was never one who had mistrust of people," she said. But that changed. "I don't take things at face value the way I use to do."
Occupation: Michigan State University professor
Resident of Augusta, Mich. for 20 years
Every time Hamilton, a Michigan State University professor of ecology and environment, shoves off in his kayak as a trip leader of Kanoe the Kazoo, a program to introduce people to the river's ecosystems, he can't wait to see the astonished looks on the faces of paddlers.
"So many of them have this image in their minds of a river black with oil that they are amazed when they see how the river has bounced back today," Hamilton said.
The picture wasn't always so encouraging. In the first few years following the catastrophic spill, Hamilton fretted about how the heavy crude oil could be cleaned from the bottom of the river. He worried about the long-term consequences to the plants and animals.
"It was a time of uncertainty," he said. Now he paddles the glistening water amid dragon flies and jumping fish, explaining to those in his group how the Kalamazoo survived.
"Days on the river now are all good," he said. "It's been a spectacular recovery."
Occupation: Calhoun County Director of emergency management
Resident of Calhoun County for 25 years
The relief Dunham feels today is as powerful as the despair he felt that late afternoon in July 2010 flying over the Kalamazoo, a river that had turned black from more than a million gallons of oil. "You withstand the disaster and you withstand what it does to your life personally and professionally," he said.
As the Calhoun County Director of Emergency Management, Dunham took that flight just hours after the spill and tears came to his eyes. Today when he stands on the banks of the river, he sighs and lets the pastoral scene wash over him.
"Five years ago we saw a river of oil," Dunham said. "Now we see the fish and the birds and the turtles and the frogs. It's a miracle. I think 'Oh my gosh.'"
Along the way, from catastrophe to rebirth, Dunham said he has been humbled by the collective caring of the agencies involved, from those in Enbridge to the Environmental Protection Agency.
"The smartest people in this country were engaged in making this right," he said. "Not once did I sense a lack of commitment to making the river alive again."
Occupation: Michigan Department of Natural Resources fish expert
Resident of Kalamazoo for 19 years
Wesley, a Michigan Department of Natural Resources officer, was one of the first wildlife specialists to respond to the disaster. He said he tries to not to think about the disaster. "I look at where the river is today."
Even then he tried not to think about the totality of the spill on the animals and plant life—it would have been too overwhelming. Instead he focused on saving one animal at time. Turtle. Muskrat. Mink. Duck. Goose.
But it's the turtles Wesley remembers most. "Some of them were covered in oil from head to foot so that it was hard to recognize them," he said. Some could barely move. "That's when you really realize the consequences." There were so many injured animals that the agency lost count of the numbers, but agency officials estimate they rehabilitated and released back to the river nearly 5,000 creatures.
Now when Wesley sees a turtle gently gliding across the water, an arrow shaped wake trailing behind, he wonders: "Is that one of the survivors—one of the lucky ones?"
Occupation: EPA on-scene coordinator
Resident of Michigan for 62 years
When Dollhopf arrived in Marshall on the day after the spill to coordinate the EPA's response, he stood on the banks of the Kalamazoo surveying the damage. He was astonished by a catastrophe "like none we had seen before," he said. And he's seen some big ones: Hurricane Katrina, 9/11 and the disintegration of the space shuttle Columbia.
Three years later, when his stint as head of the Kalamazoo response effort ended, Dollhopf was even more astonished. By then he had become intimately familiar with every mile of river fouled by the spill. The magnitude of the damage "was bigger and greater" than he first thought, he said.
Dollhopf, who was responsible for coordinating the efforts of more than 2,000 personnel and hundreds of pieces of equipment, described the early days of the cleanup as "chaotic." But soon disorder turned to order. And in the end, Dollhopf said, "We learned things that makes us better than we were."
That will come in handy, he concedes, as the industry grows its pipeline infrastructure to pump more oil into North American refineries and ports.
"We have to be prepared and we have to be as good as we can to respond," he said. "While we hope to never see it again, we know that we are going to."