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Health concerns after the oil spill

The Kalamazoo River a few days after the oil spill last July.
Photo courtesy of the State of Michigan
The Kalamazoo River a few days after the oil spill last July.

Until last July, many people in Marshall had no idea an oil pipeline owned by Enbridge Energy Partners ran underneath their town.

Then, it broke. More than 840,000 gallons of thick, black oil from the Canadian tar sands poured into the Kalamazoo River.

“I think I can sum it up in one word and that is nightmare."

Deb Miller lives just 50 feet from the Kalamazoo River.

“The smell, I don’t even know how to describe the smell, there are no words. You could not be outside."

Miller and her husband Ken own a carpet store. It’s right above the Ceresco Dam, about 20 feet from the river. So she couldn’t escape the oil spill by going to the store.

“The headaches were just absolutely intense, watering eyes. The cough, it was chronic.”

She says the daily headaches and coughing lasted for months.

And many of her neighbors felt the same way.

Last fall, the Michigan Department of Community Health issued a report on acute health effects of the oil spill. The report says headaches, nausea and respiratory symptoms were the most common problems. Some people reported rashes. The report says that’s consistent with what you’d expect for short term health effects from an oil spill.

But many people are wondering if the chemicals they may have been exposed to from the oil will affect them later on.

Paul Makoski is an environmental health manager with the Calhoun County Health Department.

“We had residents that were exposed to any number of chemicals and substances that are certainly not in their everyday exposure. What effect those have in the amount that they were in the environment is still the great unknown and that’s why we’re still trying to find somebody with that expertise who can help us with that.”

He says the health department is just in the beginning stages of considering a long term health study. They haven’t yet approached Enbridge to ask them to pay for a study.

The type of oil spilled in the Kalamazoo River was diluted bitumen. Bitumen is a type of oil that comes from tar sands. It’s a very thick oil, and it has to be diluted in order to move through pipelines. It’s often diluted with natural gas condensate.

Anthony Swift is with the Natural Resources Defense Council. He’s an author of a recent NRDC report on the risks of tar sands oil.

“Part of the difficulty is there are so many different toxins in diluted bitumen, each has its own rap sheet of symptoms. But several of them are carcinogenic, you have heavy metals that have all sorts of different systemic risks to various organ systems.”

He says bitumen has significantly higher concentrations of mercury, arsenic, and chromium than conventional crude. But he says there haven’t been any academic studies on the long term health effects of diluted bitumen... so there are many unknowns.

Lorraine Grymala is a spokesperson with Enbridge. She says Enbridge has put together a panel to review medical claims.

“You know, Enbridge’s business is energy transportation, that’s what we know, that’s what we’re good at, and when it comes to evaluating the validity of medical claims that’s out of our realm of understanding.”

But some residents worry when the oil spill is declared cleaned up... they’ll be forgotten about.

Susan Connolly lives in Marshall with her family. She says she’s concerned about her five year old son and three year old daughter.

“If my son or daughter becomes ill, I will track you down. The government needs to step up and enforce Enbridge to pay for a long term health study. Make them do it!”

There is a precedent for this now. Some of the people affected by the BP spill in the Gulf will be getting a long term health study. The National Institutes of Health has launched a 10-year study of 55,000 cleanup workers and volunteers. BP chipped in $10 million for a portion of that study.

Rebecca Williams is senior editor in the newsroom, where she edits stories and helps guide news coverage.
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