New MI research facilities to investigate cleaning up fresh water oil spills


SAULT STE. MARIE, Mich. (WJMN) — A federal program will launch the U.S. Coast Guard’s new National Center of Expertise for the Great Lakes at Lake Superior State University in Sault Ste. Marie and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Great Lakes Environmental Research Laboratory in Ann Arbor.

U.S. Sen. Gary Peters, D-Mich., helped create the Coast Guard NCOE. He said he was concerned about the potential damage an oil spill could cause in the Great Lakes or near other inland bodies of water.

“Certainly we know in Michigan how catastrophic an oil spill can be. We saw it in the Kalamazoo River, which has been the most expensive oil pipeline break in the history of our country. It took years to clean up and was a very complex undertaking,” Peters told WJMN, News 8’s Upper Peninsula sister station, over Zoom on Tuesday.

Peters said the idea for the research centers was born from committee hearing he was in that covered lessons learned from the Deepwater Horizon oil spill. He said the takeaway was that there isn’t a good understanding of how you clean up oil in fresh water.

“What the researchers told me is that cleaning up oil is a lot more complicated in fresh water than it is in salt water,” Peters said. “One of the reasons is that salt water contains little microorganisms that actually break down oil and eat the oil. So one of the classic ways to deal with an oil spill is to spread it out thin and let the microorganisms do their job. However, those microorganisms do not live in fresh water.”

Peters said that information led to conversations with the Coast Guard whether it could adequately oversee the cleanup of an oil spill on the Great Lakes. The answer he received was no, it was not prepared, and that more research and practice of techniques was necessary.

Peters wrote legislation to create a Center of Expertise for the Coast Guard to deal with fresh water oil spills. Some $3 million in federal funding will support eight positions: four in Sault Ste. Marie and four in Ann Arbor.

Scientists will work with universities across Michigan to better understand the dynamics of cleaning up oil in fresh water. In addition, Peters said the Coast Guard will be able to stage equipment for cleanup at its station in Sault Ste. Marie. First responders will also be trained in how to use the equipment.

Lake Superior State University President Dr. Rodney S. Hanley his school was already considering the addition of fresh water research and this partnership accelerates the process.

“Our university is ideally suited for the vision for a Coast Guard Center of Expertise. We are at the nexus of three Great Lakes right here in Sault Ste. Marie,” Hanley asid. “When you think about the level of trade that moves through the Great Lakes, it’s critical that we keep our Great Lakes pristine and clean. So Lake Superior State University stands by, ready to do its part in the Coast Guard Center of Expertise.”

Construction of the facility on LSSU’s campus is set to be completed by December.

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