Environmental experts say it's too soon to know the full extent of the damage caused by this week's spill of an estimated 819,000 gallons of crude oil into the Kalamazoo River watershed in Calhoun County. However, one thing is clear: The area's environment will feel the effects of the spill for years to come.
Already, dead fish have washed ashore on the banks of the Kalamazoo River near Battle Creek, and waterfowl such as Canada geese have been spotted coated with oil. The spill also is expected to affect invertebrates such as crayfish, amphibians such as frogs that live along the river and any mammals that come into contact with the polluted water.
Work crews now are scrambling to contain the area impacted by the oil spill that occurred Monday. It's hoped that by containing the spill in a dam pond just east of Kalamazoo, the oil won't find its way into Lake Michigan.
But that won't stop the oil spill from damaging plants and animals downstream.
"The first urgent issue is just taking care of the ducks and the geese that use the surrounding area," said Danielle Korpalski, regional outreach coordinator for National Wildlife Federation.
Already, workers have been deployed in the area to rescue affected birds and other wildlife. That need for help may be ongoing, Korpalski said, drawing parallels between the Calhoun County oil spill and the Valdez oil spill in Alaska in 1989 and the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico that started earlier this year.
"We never thought it would happen here," Korpalski said.
But the lessons learned from earlier oil spills demonstrates that cleaning up after a catastrophe like this can take years, or even decades.
"As we saw from Valdez and the Gulf, this stuff lingers for years and years," Korpalski said. "People around the Kalamazoo River had already been struggling to keep it clean and people had been struggling to restore it. This is like another nail in the coffin."
But the spill in Michigan will be unlike oil spills in the ocean, said Jeremy Emmi, executive director of the Michigan Nature Association, based in Williamston. The spill in the Gulf was able to dissipate into a larger body of water, he said.
"There's less water to dilute that oil here," Emmi said. "This will be more concentrated."
The Michigan Nature Association operates wildlife preserves across the state, including two near the site of the oil spill. He wasn't yet sure whether those preserves have been affected.
Emmi said he doesn't expect petroleum contamination to creep upstream of the spill site, located near the border of the city of Marshall and Fredonia Township.
Corral the spill
Downstream, workers are trying to corral the spill in Morrow Lake, a dam pond on the Kalamazoo River located just east of the city of Kalamazoo.
"We think that's where we can head off this spill," Michigan DNRE spokeswoman Mary Dettloff said. "There's probably no way this will reach Lake Michigan."
Once corralled, workers will use vacuum trucks to suck the oil out of the water. Dettloff didn't know how much that would cost or how long it would take, but she said Enbridge Energy Partners, the company taking responsibility for the spill, will foot the bills.
But the National Wildlife Federation's Korpalski said the spill might reach Lake Michigan by Sunday if it can't be contained.