A look at the Kalamazoo River 10 years after oil spill

Kalamazoo and Battle Creek

MARSHALL, Mich. (WOOD) — Ten years ago, one of the worst inland oil spills in American history played out in West Michigan — the Enbridge oil spill on the Kalamazoo River.

It’s the costliest inland oil spill in U.S. history.

The Canadian company that owns the pipeline, Enbridge Energy Partners, was ordered by the U.S. government to pay a $61 million penalty. Enbridge also paid $1.2 billion for cleanup and restoration and reached a $75 million deal with the state.

The July 2010 spill dumped hundreds of thousands of gallons of crude oil into the Kalamazoo River, polluting a nearly 40-mile stretch of the river and its tributaries.

Workers using suction hoses try to clean up an oil spill of approximately 800,000 gallons of crude oil from the Kalamazoo River July 28, 2010 in Battle Creek, Michigan. (Photo by Bill Pugliano/Getty Images)

Part of the oil evaporated, some was scraped off the top and the rest was dredged. A decade later, it’s hard to tell that such a disaster ever happened.

“It’s strange to stand here 10 years later,” said Cheryl Vosburg of the Kalamazoo River Watershed Council. “Nobody knew at that time the actual extent of the amount of oil that was in the water, but it was overwhelming, and it was sad.”

On July 25, 2010, an oil pipeline burst drained into Talmadge Creek and then quickly overwhelmed the Kalamazoo River with more than a million gallons of oil, according to the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services.

The wildlife that depended on the river had to move away as their ecosystem was destroyed by the spill which covered a 40-mile stretch from Marshall to Comstock.

“In fairly short order, things started to look better,” she said. “And then one year, two years, five years later and here we are 10 years later, and the river looks beautiful.”

Nature has reclaimed the river passing through Calhoun County with the oil unlikely to cause any further ecological damages.

“The new species of wildlife that live here today seem to be flourishing — the birds, the fish, all of the wildlife,” said Vosburg.

The spill is not without its silver lining–the removal of the Ceresco Dam in 2014 made recreation on the river possible along with the creation of five new access points.

Now that the river’s rebound appears complete, it’s become a cautionary tale for generations to come.

“There quite likely will be an oil spill somewhere else,” she said. “And hopefully there are lessons learned here that they’ll take with them to address pipeline safety and oversight in other areas like Line 5.”

Enbridge Energy’s Line 5 is the pipeline that runs hundreds of miles through Canada and Michigan, transporting 23 million gallons of light crude and liquid natural gas each day.

When it comes to the final stages of the Kalamazoo River cleanup, the Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes and Energy recently approved its last No Further Action report, meaning that it doesn’t recommend further restorative efforts on the river and its letting nature take care of it at this point.

“There will be ongoing monitoring, you know, for years to come for sure, but it’s essentially done,” she said.

The Kalamazoo River oil spill remains the second-largest inland oil spill in U.S. history just behind the 1991 spill in Minnesota.

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