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.