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Enbridge, EPA continue to deal with unprecedented oil cleanup effort in Michigan’s Calhoun County

Image has not been found. URL: http://images.americanindependent.com/2010/08/MahurinEnviro_Thumb5.jpgMARSHALL — The cleanup of the Midwest’s worst oil spill in Calhoun County last July 25 continues a year later, and officials from both Enbridge, the company that owns the pipeline, and the government agencies overseeing it say the spill has ‘unique challenges.’

“Capturing and cleaning up this heavy oil is a unique challenge,” said Susan Hedman, Environmental Protection Agency Region 5 director, during a press briefing last week. “No one at the EPA can remember dealing with this much submerged oil in a river.”

The news comes on the one year anniversary of the spill. While government officials say the anniversary is July 26, they note that only because that is when Enbridge Energy Partners finally reported the spill. The night before, the 9-1-1 center in Calhoun county began getting calls at about 9:30 about the smell of natural gas all along the river. A Consumer’s Energy employee finally located the spill in a wooded marsh land in Freedonia Twp. at about 11:15 a.m. July 26 — hours after an Enbridge employee allegedly walked the line and could find no evidence of a leak.

Enbridge did not call in the spill until 1 p.m. EST on the 26th, by which time the oil had already spread many miles down Talmadge Creek and the Kalamazoo River. Both bodies of water were at high flood stage, resulting in oil contamination on islands and over banks throughout the river.

The heavy oil Hedman references is tar sands oil, removed from deposits in Alberta, Canada. That oil is found in a naturally thick semi-solid form beneath the surface. Miners inject steam into the earth to turn the solid into liquid and pump it to the surface. There is it is mixed with an oil mixture called diluent. The exact make up of diluent is considered a trade secret and thus unknown to the public.

The tar sands oil, however, is a well known quantity. It is thick, corrosive and filled with contaminates like sulfur and heavy metals.

The two items, diluent and tar sands oil, combined together to create a unique spill, said Mark Durno, deputy on-scene commander for the spill response from the EPA.

“With the diluent, we had benzene and other VOCs (volatile organic chemicals) as far down as Battle Creek. That’s unusual in a crude oil spill. That was a surprise to us,” Durno said. “This is also the largest footprint of essentially a situation unique to tar spills.”

By unique to tar spills, Durno was referencing the release of information that cleanup crews and assessments had identified 200 acres of submerged oil pockets on the bottom of the river. Those pockets were found in unique places along the river, places where sediments are usually found deposited in a river.

EPA has ordered the company to remove the 200 acres of identified submerged oil by Aug. 31 — a time frame it admits may not be realistic.

Durno and others officials from the EPA noted that the submerged oil could easily have moved further down river, changing locations. They also admit that there are likely pockets that have not yet come to the officials’ attention.

“We anticipate that over the next couple of years, we’ll probably be doing very similar work,” Durno said.

The tar sands oil has also caused levels of certain heavy metals at rates higher than acceptable, the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality said last week.

Enbridge officials continue to claim that about 90 percent of the oil has been removed from the river. Enbridge says the spill was 847,000 gallons of oil, but the EPA upped the estimate to one million days after the spill. Neither agency will officially state how much oil was lost in the spill.

“I am so fed up with them saying they have recovered 90 percent,” says Ceresco dam area resident Susan Connolly.”There is no confirmation how much was spilled.”

Ceresco is an area where EPA has identified a sizable pocket of submerged oil. Last November, Michigan Messenger found submerged oil there as well.

In another part of the river, at the Baker Estates Mobile Home Park located in Emmett Township, the river is only 30 yards away from several of the homes. The area remains oil soaked, and the stench of raw crude oil permeates the hot July afternoon air.

EPA and Enbridge acknowledge that the area needs work done.

“Clean up and remediation efforts are an ongoing coordinated effort between Enbridge and the regulatory agencies,” said Jason Manshum, spokesperson for the Canadian oil company. ”The work is conducted according to work plans approved by the regulatory agencies, and is based on the findings of the reassessment of the river that was performed earlier this year. The monitoring and sampling data that has been collected in the vicinity of Baker Estates to date does not reveal any indication of increased health risk.”

“There is still oil in what are the overbank areas. They will be targets in the upcoming weeks,” said Ralph Dolphoff, EPA on-site commander. He said he expects the area behind Baker Estates to be addressed in the next two or three weeks. He did note, however, that oil stains on trees would remain as the only way to remove that oil would be to remove the trees.

In other areas, the cleanup is literally removing entire islands from the river, and replacing them with manmade ones. This is in response to the continued oil contamination on the islands.

Last year the Messenger reported that cleanup workers said they were directed to cover up oil-soaked island soil with clean soil, then rake it smooth to appear as though the oil had been removed. Enbridge and EPA never fully acknowledged this cleanup cover up, but the focus on so many of the islands supports the claims of former cleanup workers. The only thing EPA would say is that it was reviewing evidence of cleanup failures and would respond accordingly.

Some of the workers who were directed to cover up oil on the islands, Messenger revealed, were actually undocumented workers. The subcontractor responsible for their hiring, Hallmark Industrial of Texas, was fired shortly after Messenger’s investigation revealing the undocumented workers toiling in unsafe working conditions. Enbridge says it has taken no action to make sure undocumented workers are not working on the clean up now.

“All contractors engaged by Enbridge to work on the incident response are obligated to comply with all applicable laws, including those related to the eligibility for employment of their personnel,” said Manshum. “How the contractors ensure compliance with these laws is a matter for each contractor to address individually.”

Enbridge responded to the investigation last year about undocumented workers on the river by claiming they had reviewed the hiring documents of Hallmark employees — the same employees arrested later that week as being undocumented workers in Texas.

And while Hedman says officials are working to open parts of the river to fishing and other recreational activities, she is unsure if it will ultimately happy this year.

“That is our goal, but we are not there yet,” she said.

In fact, Dr. Jennifer Gray from the Michigan Department of Community Health told reporters last week that the most immediate concern right now is contact with the river. She said those who contacted the river should wash the contacted area with soap and water. Such contact can lead to short term irritation, she said.

“MDCH 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 Neibel, spokesperson for MDCH.

Regardless of the cleanup efforts and assurances of officials, some residents near the river are not sold on the claims that the river is becoming safe.

Says Ceresco resident Connolly, “And now I will spend the rest of my life concerned of the long term health effects of my children and residents exposed to tar sand crude.”

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