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Midwest’s worst oil disaster still fresh for Michigan residents one year later


EMMETT TWP. — Michelle Barlond-Smith walks through Baker Estates Trailer Park, pointing out empty trailers and telling the sad tales attached to each one — tales of resurgent cancer from remission, kidney failure, sickened and dead pets, strange lesions and skin pox pepper her conversation.

“[There have been] upper respiratory infections, pneumonia, rashes, a lot of urinary tract infections, especially people who are allergic to sulfur. You go to the doctor, they hand you a five day pack of antibiotics and they tell you to see if that works, then it doesn’t or maybe it does, the first time, but within a month you’re back in [their office]. We’ve had people in the park that have been hospitalized three, four or five times since the oil spill,” she says. “It doesn’t matter which age group, everyone has seen a decrease in their health. It’s been frustrating. And a lot of people don’t trust the doctors because all you get is, ‘Here you go, here are some antibiotics.’”

Smith continued, “Everyone has lost weight, unless they’ve put you on steroids. Steroids seem to help some people, not other people. People will lose anywhere from twenty to fifty pounds once they drop the steroids.”

Smith has lost forty pounds and her husband has lost twenty pounds, “On average [in the park] I would say it’s about thirty or thirty five pounds, we continue to see it and here we are a year later.”

This is what living in the shadow of the Midwest’s worst oil disaster in history is like. Smith says her world changed dramatically on July 25 last year, although she wouldn’t know how dramatically until days and weeks later. That’s when people started having symptoms of upper respiratory illness and skin lesions.

She is convinced it is the oil that is causing the health concerns, but health authorities for Calhoun county and the state won’t disclose the results of short term health studies that have been completed. A partial report released in December by state health officials did note some immediate exposure-related illnesses directly after the spill. The health authorities say they are waiting to complete a full report on all the testing conducted in relation to exposure to the chemicals, heavy metals and oil residents along the river may have been exposed to.

“[Michigan Department of Community Health] did document some of the acute, short-term health effects of the spill in a report that was released in December but has not conducted any medical testing to determine if there have been long-term respiratory, skin, or other effects of the oil spill on the Baker Estates residents,” said Kelly Niebel, spokesperson for MDCH. “Jim Rutherford, Health Officer for Calhoun County Public Health Department, noted that he has petitioned the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR) for a study of potential long-term health effects of the oil spill.”

Niebel notes that MDCH is not planning any long term health studies.

“ATSDR has the resources – epidemiologists and medical doctors – better able to address this request,” Niebel said.

The smell of tar sands oil — a thick bitumin oil harvested from deep in the earth in Alberta, Canada using high pressure steam — invaded the park like a blanket late that evening a year ago. The smell and contamination remain.

An estimated one million gallons of the thick, tarry oil, contaminated with heavy metals and cut with a lighter oil mixture called diluent, filled a marshy woodland area in Freedonia Twp. A segment of Canadian Enbridge Energy Partners’ Lakehead Pipeline 6B had ruptured, creating a six and half foot long gash on the pipe that expanded into a so-called fish mouth opening with its widest point being four and half inches wide.

For the first several days after the spill, authorities responding to the spill were working from Material Safety Data Sheets (MSDS) for generic oil. The oil company would not provide environmental workers with an MSDS for tar sands crude until several days after the spill. To top that off, Enbridge denied the oil was from the tar sands until Michigan Messenger pushed CEO Pat Daniels on the issue with U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) maps showing the oil was coming from the same bitumen deposits as the Alberta tar sands.

Even after that admission was made, officials overseeing the spill clean up didn’t start testing for the heavy metals found in larger quantities in that kind of oil until after Messenger pushed them on the issue. Slight levels of mercury and nickel were identified last year, and last week officials from the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality acknowledged that certain heavy metals were being found in the river that exceeded maximum safety levels.

The oil pushed through the thick marsh soil into Talmadge Creek and then into the Kalamazoo River. From there the oil contaminated nearly 40 miles of river. Last year, the EPA said the oil spill had been stopped at Morrow Lake just inside the Kalamazoo County line. But last week officials admitted that they were “surprised” at how large of a footprint of contamination the spill caused. Officials say as many as 200 acres of river bottom is contaminated with thick, tar-like deposits of the oil. Some of that has been discovered at Morrow Lake, the point where environmental officials thought they had contained the contamination.

An EPA fly over photo of the lake shows a thick rainbow swirl sitting on top of the lake — the tell tale sign of oil contamination.

Back at Baker Estates, Smith shows the small flood plain and side pools literally 30 yards from trailers in the park. They are contained by heavy plastic boom — not the heavy white absorbent boom common to actual clean up. The plastic boom is about containment. Putting a stick in the submerged sediments promptly provides a bubbling of rainbow sheen as the submerge oil is shaken loose from the mud..

On the flood plain, Smith points to a tree which about two and half feet off the ground forms a near perfect right angle. It is coated in thick black oil stain.

EPA and MDEQ officials say they are “well aware” of the problem in the shallows and “overbank” behind Baker Estates. In a press briefing officials said the cleanup efforts should reach the park within two or three weeks

Smith says two residents in the park suffered recurrence of cancers that had been in remission for years prior to the spill. She thinks the cancer resurgence is tied to the spill.

Dr. Kenneth Rosenman is a Professor of Medicine in the College of Human Medicine at Michigan State University. He is a physician specializing in general internal medicine and occupational and environmental medicine. During an interview with Messenger, he addressed some of the short and long term health effects of the spill those residing in the park.

“Unfortunately 40 percent of us get cancer, almost half of us get cancer in our lifetime so it’s occurring all the time,” Rosenman said. “So if you have a large enough population you’re going to see people start to get cancer because they’re going to get cancer anyway. That may make people more anxious, particularly when they are not aware of the physiological mechanisms that cause cancer twenty or thirty years after exposure. The fact that [people get cancer] the next day, the next week, the next year has nothing to do with that recent exposure.”

“From what I am aware of, about the exposures that occurred, I would not consider anybody in risk of a long term disease from exposure,” Rosenman.

Rosenman went on to say there are various jobs in which people are exposed to these types of chemicals on a daily-basis for years through their type of work and show much higher levels of exposure than those in Baker Estates would and they exhibit no long term health maladies.

“Based on what we know about these chemicals or metals, I would not expect long term effects. One, based on levels of exposure and two, based on a relative short term [exposure], not saying days or weeks is acceptable, but it’s short term versus thirty years. Presumably, the levels are less now than they were immediately after the first spill.”

Those living in Baker Estates are mainly lower income, working at low wage jobs or relying on fixed incomes, which according to Dr. Rosenman tends to lead to more initial health problems not related to the spill due to poor diet, increased levels of smoking and difficult access to healthcare. However, he believes the reported lower levels of exposure do not endanger those in the park any more than people exposed in a more affluent neighborhood or those with quality healthcare.

“Maybe my one exception to that is if there were higher rates of emphysema and asthma [in the community], then yes, those are the types of conditions that would be aggravated by this type of exposure.”

Rosenman said that short term effects of this type of exposure are two-fold, there is an irritant effect which can cause a runny nose, sore throat, irritated eyes and can aggravate respiratory problems like emphysema and asthma. And there are neurological effects like dizziness, headaches and fatigue.

“MDCH is not investigating these cancer cases. Cancer is a complex set of diseases – not one disease – with many different causes, presentations, treatment protocols, responses to treatment by going into and out of remission, and prognoses” MDCH’s Niebel said. “Cancer’s also very common, with one in three people getting cancer in their lifetime. It wouldn’t be possible to determine if those particular cancer resurgences were caused by exposure to the oil.”

Michigan Messenger reporters Sam Inglot and Eartha Jane Melzer contributed to this report.

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