DNRE Responds to Kalamazoo River Oil Spill

DNRE fisheries technician Mike Wilson shows off an oil-covered turtle picked up along the Kalamazoo River.

August 12, 2010

All summer long, American television audiences have been subjected to tales of an environmental disaster as images of the Gulf of Mexico oil spill were beamed into their homes almost daily. Then in late July, Michigan residents were given front row seats to a similar - albeit much smaller in scope - disaster as a leaking oil pipeline spilled heavy crude oil into Talmadge Creek, which flows into the Kalamazoo River near Marshall.

Exactly how much oil leaked from the pipeline - which transported crude oil from Indiana to Sarnia, Ontario - is in dispute with estimates ranging from about 800,000 gallons to more than a million. Either way, the spill was catastrophic; enough oil escaped from the pipeline to put a petroleum sheen on the river for 35 miles downstream from Marshall to just upstream from the Kalamazoo city limits and to coat the riparian zone with black gunk along the way.

Because petroleum pipelines fall under the jurisdiction of the federal government, the Environmental Protection Agency became the lead agency to oversee the disaster with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service taking on the task of protecting the fish and wildlife resources along the waterway.

But the Department of Natural Resources and Environment sprung into action as well, aiding the federal effort to rescue and protect fish and wildlife along the river corridor.

"We're in it from soup to nuts," said DNRE Director Becky Humphries. "Our fisheries and wildlife people and our law enforcement officers have been on the scene from the start. Our water people are out sampling, upstream and downstream, and our air quality people are working with the communities to make sure we're evacuating the right people.

"We're in it up to our eyeballs – a whole department effort."

A great blue heron, covered with oil, seeks refuge in the tall vegetation along the Kalamazoo River.

The DNRE Fisheries Division immediately mobilized teams to begin surveying the affected area to try to determine the extent of the damage to fish and wildlife resources. (Reptiles and amphibians are overseen by the Fisheries Division.) Teams were on the water, observing and collecting specimens downriver from the spill within a couple of days, as soon as the EPA allowed them on the water.

"We need to know the impacts of this event as soon as we can," said Gary Whelan, Fisheries Division's Hatchery Program manager who was acting chief of the division the week that the leak occurred. "Oiled reptiles are a problem and we certainly have a lot of them. We've seen a lot of turtles in distress."

Fisheries crews sampling the river as well as U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service employees are collecting oil-covered turtles and taking them to rehabilitation centers to be cleaned up. A pair of soft-shelled turtles that were collected and cleaned were released at Binder Park Zoo in Battle Creek.

Through the early days of the leak, the fisheries crews failed to find any large-scale fish kills. But just because fisheries staffers have yet to find largescale fish kills, doesn't mean they won't.

"We might see delayed mortalities," Whelan said. "We'll be looking for fish kills for some time to come. We'll be surveying for certainly weeks and it could be months."

And fish are not the only concern, Whelan said. What about insects? Crayfish? Mussels? Frogs?

"Those things can be hard to detect," Whelan said.

This map turtle was completely covered with oil from the spill.

Fisheries Division has good data on what fisheries populations should look like along the river because of the division's long term Status and Trends Survey Program. So future population surveys could yield important information on how fish were affected by the spill. But similar data does not exists for reptiles or amphibians, so fisheries crews are conducting surveys upstream from the spill to try to generate baseline data for future comparisons.

John Lerg, wildlife habitat biologist out of the DNRE's Plainwell office, went to the scene of the spill immediately to assess the damage.

"Early in the week I was looking at the oil on the habitat," said Lerg, a 40 year DNRE veteran. "Later in the week I was working with a team trying to capture birds and transport them to rehabilitation facilities.

"Now I'm imbedded on a fisheries team looking for anything you might see at near shore environments."

Lerg, who was on Morrow Pond (where the oil spill seemed to have been contained) a week after the spill began, said the wildlife he saw on the pond – ranging from turtles to great blue herons looked to be healthy."

"I've been investigating reports of oiled birds downstream from here and from what I can tell, the reports are true," he said. "These birds are able to fly and are able to cover 10 or 20 miles. We don't see many birds that can not fly."

Lerg said many of the Canada geese that are covered with oil are clustering at locations where there are other birds.

"They're pulling up on mowed grass areas and staying out of the water," Lerg said. "There may be 100 geese and maybe 15 to 20 of them are oiled."

DNRE Fisheries Division Crews were on the Kalamazoo River as soon as the EPA allowed them to begin sampling for fish kills and rescuing oiled creatures.

Lerg said workers have taken a number of creatures - Canada geese, mallard ducks, a great blue heron, a kingfisher, muskrats, a mute swan – to the rehabilitation center. And though he's not seen a lot of mortality – other than muskrats, he's not sure wildlife is out of the woods yet.

"I'm very concerned about the amount of oil in the habitat near the spill sight," he said. "I'm afraid the oil is going to not only impact wildlife directly but also impact it indirectly by affecting the wetland vegetation and aquatic vegetation and degrading the wildlife habitat."