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The Oil Spill on My Michigan Doorstep

In Michigan, we are used to being told that green living can save the world. But what about my more immediate environment?

Susana Adame

Last Monday, the largest oil spill in the midwest's history flooded into a small creek in southwest Michigan. The environmental protection agency is currently estimating the leaked oil at about 1 million barrels. The spill caused many scares, not the least of which is that the creek is a tributary of a larger river that flows into Lake Michigan. Lake Michigan is one of a series of lakes in the region that exist as the largest fresh water source in the US.

We in Michigan have been hearing a lot about how this spill is just one more spot of evidence that it's time for us to "end our dependency on oil". It's time to "go green" and look for "sustainable types of living". For the most part, I agree. But since the oil spill, I've found myself less invested in using yet another environmental catastrophe as a justification for my political beliefs, and more worried about the immediate problems this spill has caused for the citizens of my state.

For all its dependence on factories and industrialisation, Michigan is still at its heart a region that survives on and interacts heavily with the water. Old men go out fishing after work, because that's what they've always done. Kids spend their summers exploring the local creek, wildlife that feeds families survive on the vegetation the water produces. All of which is now threatened, as the New York Times describes:

"On the river on Wednesday, Dan Backus arrived at his favourite fishing spot and found black water and oil-soaked plants. Looking out at the damage from the spill, he mourned the loss of fish and vegetation. 'It's all destroyed,' said Mr. Backus, 64. 'I'm just sick about it.'"

Other people are left with oil-soaked backyards, and the impact on the wildlife is only just beginning to be understood. Birds, turtles, and muskrats are just some of the animals that have been spotted covered in oil and highly distressed. Scientists are saying impact on fish possibly won't be known for years.


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The most immediate concern for many residents is the smell, which seems to be everywhere. Crude oil contains a chemical called benzene, a known carcinogen to humans. There have been multiple reports of poisoning and illness, and after almost a week, several homeowners nearest the spill were finally evacuated.

But people who live in homes that are not designated as being "at risk" are finding themselves relative shut-ins, afraid or simply unable to come out. I have a friend who lives in Marshall, the community where the oil spill originated; she's had to seal up the windows in her house and keep the air conditioning on high because the smell is so bad. People who can afford it are buying medical grade air purifiers. In the worst of ironies, the Red Cross shelter appears to have been set up close enough to the spill site the smell even permeated there. As a result, most people were finding neighbours and friends to stay with, rather than going to the shelter.

Although it appears that the oil is contained (there are whispers to the contrary), for the first time I am learning that there really is a difference between "clean up" and "recovery". Experts are predicting it will take months to clean this spill up. I was surprised when I read that: given the devastation and the reality that it's taken decades for other oil spills to be cleaned, how on earth could this be cleaned in months? And even if it was cleaned that quickly, how long will it take for the area to recover? How long will it be before residents can stop worrying about getting sick, or for creeks to be safe for children to play in again? Will it be gone before people get used to it?

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Susana Adame lives, works and organises in south-east Michigan

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