Kalamazoo River Reopens, 23 Months after Spill, But Submerged Oil Remains

The river is not yet free of the heavy oil that was spilled—Canadian diluted bitumen, or dilbit. Removing what remains submerged could take years.

Aerial view of the Morrow Lake Delta of the Kalamazoo River, still closed as a r
Aerial view of the Morrow Lake Delta of the Kalamazoo River, still closed as a result of the 2010 Enbridge oil spill. Red dots indicate location of submerged oil surveyed soonafter the spill. Source: Submerged Oil Task Force.

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About 34 miles of the Kalamazoo River in Southeastern Michigan were opened to the public Thursday, almost two years after the most expensive oil pipeline spill in U.S. history dumped more than 1 million gallons of heavy Canadian crude into an adjoining creek.

Crews have been cleaning the waterway since July 26, 2010, when a ruptured pipeline owned by Enbridge Energy Partners, the U.S. branch of Canada’s largest transporter of crude oil, was discovered in wetlands in Marshall, Mich. The Canadian crude oil, known as diluted bitumen, contaminated more than two miles of Talmadge Creek and about 36 miles of the Kalamazoo, forcing people to flee their homes because of the overpowering smells.

The cost of the cleanup has now reached at least $765 million, making it the most expensive oil pipeline spill since the government began keeping records in 1968. Enbridge is responsible for all of the cost, with most of the cost being paid by its insurance company.

With Thursday’s opening, all but a short stretch of the river known as the Morrow Lake delta is now available for recreation, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. That delta area, at the western edge of the contaminated section and near the city of Kalamazoo, remains closed to the public.

Although people can once again swim and boat on the Kalamazoo, that doesn’t mean the river is oil-free. Cleanup of the remaining oil will continue in the Morrow Lake delta and other low spots along the river bottom. EPA officials in Marshall have told InsideClimate News that removing the rest of the oil could take months or years.

Map of reopened and closed sections of the Kalamazoo RiverThe EPA will remain on site until the cleanup is completed, Susan Hedman, the agency administrator for Chicago-based Region 5, said in a news release Thursday.

Enbridge has estimated that 843,444 gallons of oil were discharged after Pipeline 6B developed a six-and-a-half foot tear. But calculations by the EPA, which is overseeing the cleanup operation, show that more than 1.14 million gallons of oil have been recovered so far.

Jim Rutherford, the public health officer for Calhoun County, where most of the damage occurred, announced earlier this week that any sections of the river that were reopened would meet all the necessary health and safety standards. In mid-April Rutherford opened a separate section of the river—a segment about a mile long near where Talmadge Creek feeds into the Kalamazoo. The creek has also been restored.

County health departments and the Michigan Department of Community Health have said that touching oil in the river might cause temporary skin irritation, but they don’t expect any long-term health effects. Stations with cleaning wipes are set up near kiosks at boat launches so people can remove oil from their skin and boating equipment.

“I am pleased that we are finally able to open a larger stretch of the river for people to use,” Rutherford said in a news release. “We know that people have been eager to get back and start using the river again.”