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Oil spill cleanup on Kalamazoo River continues a year later River still shows damage from Enbridge pipe rupture JIM LYNCH / The Detroit News
Marshall — A year after the worst spill in Michigan's history, pockets of oil contamination remain along a 40-mile stretch of the Kalamazoo River, and that is still closed to the public.
Tuesday marks the one-year anniversary of the underground oil line rupture in Marshall Township that sent 800,000-plus gallons of crude into the surrounding area and, eventually, the river. Oil flowed west down the river, causing problems for a string of communities including Ceresco, Battle Creek, Galesburg, Augusta and Kalamazoo. It brought thousands of local, county, state, federal and privately contracted cleanup workers to the region and drastically altered the way of life for many.
After 12 months of work, isolated problems remain and it's unclear if the river will reopen before the end of the summer. Residents have pulled up stakes and sold their homes to pipeline owner Enbridge Inc. rather than remain in the midst of the cleanup work. Thousands of animals had to be captured, cleaned and released after coming into contact with the oil.
And to outsiders, this area has become synonymous with the spill.
"We're nearly a year into our Enbridge pipeline oil spill response and we can certainly point to tremendous cleanup results," said Susan Hedman, the EPA's regional administrator. "But work continues. It will continue for a number of years."
Despite the turmoil, life in the affected area has settled into something approaching normal, according to many who live here. Enbridge officials said they have removed roughly 90 percent of the released oil. Crews will continue to work to meet deadlines for cleanup that could allow parts of the Kalamazoo River to be open to the public in late August.
The biggest remaining cleanup issues center on collections of submerged oil in three main locations: a dam near Ceresco, a mill pond at Battle Creek and, at the western end of the contaminated stretch, where the mouth of the Kalamazoo River empties into Morrow Lake. The Enbridge crews are trying to meet an Aug. 31 deadline in accordance with an EPA directive.
In addition, Enbridge continues to buy homes along the 40-mile stretch to help the hardest hit families. To date, the company has bought 130 properties.
For its efforts, the company has earned generally complimentary reviews from local and state officials. Marshall City Manager Tom Tarkiewicz recently graded Enbridge's performance as an A.
Not everyone has been as charitable.
More than 100 residents complained of headaches, nausea and vomiting in the weeks after the spill, and the state Department of Community Health plans to study the long-term health impacts from the mishap.
Enbridge also faces a civil lawsuit charging the company with negligence and "strict liability for abnormally dangerous activity." The latter charge could be precedent-setting as it labels simply transporting oil — particularly tar sands oil, the corrosive form that was in Enbridge's line that ruptured — as inherently dangerous.
Company officials estimate the spill will eventually cost $550 million, and Enbridge's insurance carrier will likely cover all but $35 million to $45 million. Losing the case could potentially mean large financial penalties. Last year, the Great Lakes Environmental Law Center estimated Enbridge could be liable for up to $100 million in civil penalties.
But not all of the problems generated by the spill have to do with money.
Many have left homes
Jack Cull's buddies were never far away last year. Whenever the 8-year-old wanted someone to play with, he could hop on his bike in the Squaw Creek neighborhood where three of his best friends were just doors away.
It was a small, out-of-the-way Marshall Township community where everyone seemed to know everyone and Cull's father, Toby, didn't worry much about his son or strangers passing through.
But a branch of the Kalamazoo River — one right near the site of the Enbridge line rupture — passes through as well. In the months following the spill, Toby Cull estimated 17 neighbors opted to sell their houses and leave. That included the families of Jack's friends.
"Now he has nobody here," Toby Cull said. "That's the biggest thing Enbridge can't put a price on — what they've done to our daily lives."
In places like Squaw Creek, with roughly 70 homes, the results of the home-buying program are noticeable. Many houses are obviously empty and certain stretches have a ghost town feel to them. Yet even unoccupied properties are well-maintained and some of the homes have been rented to Enbridge contractors. It's part of the company's efforts to lessen the negative impacts of the spill.
Of the 130 homes purchased, 114 are in Calhoun County where Marshall Township is located and the remaining 16 are in Kalamazoo County.
'Just plain trapped'
Oil spills aren't standard training for assessors, so Robin Kulikowski essentially had to create her own playbook over the last 12 months.
The flood of home purchases by Enbridge has slowed but, to date, the company has bought 64 in Kulikowski's Marshall Township alone. Among its roughly 3,000 residents, those sales could have had a drastic impact on home values and tax rates.
Kulikowski, the assessor for Marshall Township, has worked to keep local residents from taking a hit. She has held the Enbridge purchases out of her annual calculations for the township's assessed property values.
The company, she said, agreed to pay market value for the homes and now takes over as the taxpayer. Market value is higher than most of the homes were selling for at the time she said — something that could have skewed the tax rates.
But Kulikowski's efforts have not eased the worries of some residents, she said.
"People are concerned that when these homes are put up for sale people won't want to buy them because of the oil spill," she said.
Cull said the oil spill has devalued his home — one that was not eligible for purchase in Enbridge's program because it was considered too far from the river.
"You're just plain trapped," he said. "It's going to take at least 10 years for these homes to get their value back."
In addition, there are worries about how Enbridge will sell the homes. If they let the properties go at rock-bottom prices just to be rid of them, values of the surrounding homes are likely to drop.
If they put the homes up for sale at the same time, the market will be flooded, Kulikowski said.
Enbridge officials said they plan to address home sales on a case-by-case basis.
"Enbridge is committed to having no negative impact (on) market values," said Jason Manshum, a company spokesman, in a written response to questions.
"If Enbridge elects to sell a home, we are committed to selling it consistent with current market conditions. In fact, we have received strong interest in Enbridge-owned properties."
Some businesses perk up
Summertime's normal activities — camping, canoeing, fishing and inner-tubing — are not happening this season at Shady Bend Campground. After four decades of operation, the signs on the camp that sits alongside the Kalamazoo River just outside of Augusta all say "Closed for the season."
Mark and Diane LeBlanc have operated Shady Bend for the last 22 years.
"We've been closed ever since the spill took place," Mark LeBlanc said. "But Enbridge has worked with us."
For the most part, few businesses along the affected stretch of the Kalamazoo have been adversely impacted by the spill. Even Shady Bend is likely to survive.
Matt Davis, chairman of the board of the Marshall Area Chamber of Commerce, said only a very small portion of the region's economy is tied to recreation along the river. As such, he said the oil spill has not had a big impact on the local economy.
Enbridge agreed to rent out the LeBlanc's operation for the summer as a river access point for cleanup crews. The LeBlancs said they hope to be open for business again in 2012.
In some cases, however, the spill has been good news. At some point, 2,500 workers were in the region last summer to address spill impacts. At Marshall's Rose Hill Inn bed and breakfast, owner Carol Lehman saw plenty of unfamiliar faces between August and November.
"We had lots of interesting guests for about three months," she said. "At first there were local families forced out of their homes by the oil spill. Then, after a while, we started seeing scientists, Enbridge people, reporters and even a film crew."
Local favorite Pastrami Joe's has two locations — in Battle Creek and Marshall. The spill brought plenty of new people to both restaurants last year. For a few months, owner Mike Caron said, business "probably doubled."