GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) — The recent oil spill on the St. Marys River has pressed a new program from Lake Superior State University into action.

The university’s Center for Freshwater Research and Education is testing four self-sufficient real-time sensors to monitor for pollutants, with the goal of catching spills earlier and preventing more damage.

Kevin Kapuscinski, the assistant director of research at the CFRE, said the project is still in its early stages and that researchers rushed to get the sensors in the water after an estimated 5,300 gallons of gear oil spilled at the Algoma Steel mill in Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario, on June 9.

“We have four sensors out there. At this point it’s a proof-of-concept pilot project,” Kapuscinski told News 8. “Three of them are for refined oil products, one of them is for crude oil products. But they are all on their own independent power sources and can upload data in real time.”

Kapuscinski says if they can prove that the monitors are reliable and easy to maintain, the project — called “MiWaterNet” — can expand and be handed off to a federal or environmental agency. The likely host? The U.S. Coast Guard’s new National Center of Expertise in Oil Spill Response and Recovery, which will be housed in the same building as the CFRE.

At left, a photo of one of the LSSU CFRE sensors installed in the St. Marys River near Sault Ste. Marie, Michigan. At right, a close-up of the sensor of some of the technology used to upload information to the cloud in real-time. (Courtesy LSSU CFRE)

“It primarily has been focused on small streams and real-time monitoring of water quality — so dissolved oxygen, temperature connectivity, discharge — but there has been increasing interest and concern over the potential for oil spills in the Great Lakes,” Kapuscinski said from his office along the water in Sault Ste. Marie, Michigan.

“As we talk right now, there’s a freighter going by my office, and we have so much greater traffic on the Great Lakes,” he continued. “There is a number of groundings every year. That’s a high probability event, much less risk of disaster than (a potential leak from Line 5), but it’s a high probability event that something will leak from one of these ships running aground or other accidents like we had across the river.”

Each sensor is hardwired to a solar panel to maintain a consistent power source and uses the cellular network to upload data to the cloud.

An oil spill sensor is installed in the St. Marys River. (Courtesy LSSU CFRE)

“We can’t be everywhere all the time, but these sensors can,” Kapuscinski said.

Currently, the CFRE has three main partners on the MiWaterNet project — LimnoTech, which is helping with the sensors, the Bay Mills Indian Community, which has provided access around Sugar Island to place the monitors, and CIGLR, the Cooperative Institute for Great Lakes Research, which has provided $10,000 in funding to help cover the first sensors.

Now, Kapuscinski and the CFRE are focused on the next steps, monitoring their sensors and seeking funding to expand the project.

“When you talk about these sensor arrays, there’s the initial installation, but then there’s also the monitoring, the troubleshooting and eventually replacement of parts and maintenance. So the funding has to go beyond just the sensors,” Kapuscinski said. “We have to be able to fund the personnel that know how to monitor and maintain these arrays. And of course, there’s other things like travel associated with that.”

Kapuscinski said he is confident in the project and expects the expansion to happen soon.

“I anticipate this will grow pretty rapidly,” Kapuscinski said. “The technology is moving along and with the prioritization of the National Center of Expertise, that will help bring some funding to this and bring a broader monitoring network.”