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The Enbridge oil spill's effect on wetlands

It’s been more than a year since a pipeline owned by Enbridge Energy ruptured. More than 843,000 gallons of tar sands oil spilled into Talmadge Creek and the Kalamazoo River.

The Environmental Protection Agency says much of that oil has been removed from the creek and the river. But the EPA says there are still close to one hundred areas of submerged oil on the bottom of the river. Enbridge is now working to remove that oil.

The company recently missed an EPA deadline to clean up all of the submerged oil and contaminated soils.

Jason Manshum is an Enbridge spokesperson.

“Well, you know, while we have focused on completing that directive by that deadline, we have not been willing to sacrifice that work quality solely in order to meet a specific date on a calendar.”

Manshum says they ran into a number of obstacles... hot weather, storms, and a shortage of the special equipment they need. And the biggest challenge: those areas of submerged oil expanded.

“Keep in mind, the river is obviously a moving body of water, nothing stays constant, nothing is the same. So we found some of those submerged oil locations had shifted and some had expanded.”

Both Enbridge and the EPA have previously stated that it’ll be impossible to clean up every last drop of oil.

“It’s pretty common, most people think it should be easy to get it all out, and it’s just really not.”

Mike Alexander is with the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality. He’s one of the incident commanders on the cleanup site.

“When you get down to smaller quantities, they get harder to get, just the nature of how the river’s different at different locations, it gets trickier, it’s not an easy project, it’s going to take time.”

The spill happened smack in the middle of some of the most sensitive wetland areas in the state.

Mike Alexander says the workers have to be careful not to damage the wetlands as they clean up the oil.

We took a marsh buggy ride out to the area where the pipeline ruptured, near Talmadge Creek. We traveled  over mat roads... they’re special temporary roads that are set up to limit the impact on the wetlands.

Todd Losee is a wetlands specialist with the DEQ.

“The spill occurred just upstream here, it’s a bowl shape as you can see, so it basically filled up with oil.”

He says this area is slowly coming back, with a lot of help.

“What we’re trying to do is restore a native wetland plant community, and the yellow flowers you see are a type of beggar’s tick, an annual plant that comes in pretty quick.”

Losee says it’s a good start... but trying to bring a wetland back takes years, even decades. He says the DEQ will hold Enbridge accountable for damage to these wetlands.

“Throughout the area where they’re impacting wetlands, we want them to put back wetlands and try to make it the best wetlands possible. Knowing that they may never be able to replace what they took, or what was impacted.”

And... he says there are some very special wetlands right in the heart of the spill zone. We climbed back in the buggy and move to another site near Talmadge Creek.

On this site, Enbridge contractors are collecting soil samples.

Todd Losee pointed out an area of wetlands to our right.

“This wetland has extreme botanical qualities - it’s going to support similar diversity of insect life, migratory birds and bats and some of the mammals that live in that type of system.”

He says this kind of wetland is considered to be rare and imperiled. He says before the oil spill, this was one of the highest quality wetlands in southern Michigan.

“The spill went right through it, basically.”

State and federal officials are working on a damage assessment to find out how much of these rare wetlands have been lost after the spill. And they’ll determine what Enbridge might be able to try to replace.

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