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Life on the Kalamazoo River: One year after the spill

This is part one of a series marking the first anniversary of the Kalamazoo Oil Spill. Click here for parts two and three.
Workers are still trying to clean up thick tar sands oil that’s settled at the bottom of the Kalamazoo River. It’s been one year since more than 840,000 gallons leaked from a broken pipeline owned by Enbridge Energy.  Life for those near the accident site has not returned to normal yet.

“See those clumpies?”

Deb Miller points out black goopy masses as big as my fist floating on the Kalamazoo River. We’re behind Miller’s Carpet store in the village of Ceresco – six miles downstream from where the pipe broke.

Most of the oil that’s left is submerged below the water. There are around 200 acres that state regulators still classify as heavily contaminated. This is one of the worst.

Here, I can still see oil clumps everywhere – in the water, on the banks, on strips of bright orange boom. Workers in neon vests dot the river banks. I pick up a faint smell – sort of like nail polish remover.

Miller says she certainly doesn’t sit out and enjoy the view anymore. She’s used to waking up to the sound of air boats and helicopters. She’s still drinking bottled water because she’s worried her well could become contaminated. Miller’s learned more than she’s ever cared to know about pipelines and wishes could move away from her nightmare.

“The home that we live in was my husband’s family home. But if it was up to me – I would’ve been gone the week of the spill.”

Many have left. Miller says that’s changed her neighborhood forever.

“ I don’t blame anyone for getting out. There’s just too much unknown. There’s just too much unknown.”

I tried talking to people really close to the spill site. Door after door – no one answers. Some of the homes are obviously empty. Three people answered the door but refused to talk to me.

A big black SUV pulls up as I’m walking back to my car. Self-described outdoorsman Craig Ritter jumps out and introduces himself. He’s from Jackson. He’s been kayaking this section of the Kalamazoo River for years. He says the river looked like “black death” the day after the spill happened.

“The river was black. You couldn’t even hear the water. The water going over the rocks didn’t sound like water going over the rocks. It almost sounded like a kid sucking on a super thick milkshake I mean it was just (makes milkshake noises).”

We go behind an abandoned house with a porta-john for workers parked in the driveway. Ritter says the river looks a lot better on the surface. He pokes a stick into the shallow water. A blue oil sheen bubbles up along with some black-tar-like substance.

“That horrible or what? Want to go for a swim?”

No one has been able to fish or swim in this part of the river for a year. Officials hope to open part of the river to recreation by the end of next month.

Ritter looks down, wipes the sweat from his forehead and shakes his head.

“Unfortunately I don’t think that life on the river is going to be the same.”

In downtown Marshall I meet Renold Stone – he goes by Big Rey. He and his son Little Rey cool off in the shade near a city fountain. Big Rey tells me the oil spill didn’t change his life too much. His son chimes in though, reminds his dad they haven’t gone fishing at all this year.

“Actually they float, they get their floaties on, they float inside the river with their fishing poles and fish. Now they messed that up, can’t do that no more. “

Enbridge promises they’re here until the spill site is clean.

But Big Rey is cynical. He thinks Enbridge is going to do whatever it has to do to get by and that’s it. So he’s not too sure he’ll let his son go swimming or fishing in the river anytime soon.

Lindsey Smith is a Peabody Award-winning journalist currently leading the station's Amplify Team. She previously served as Michigan Public's Morning News Editor, Investigative Reporter and West Michigan Reporter.
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