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Part of Kalamazoo River opens Wednesday, first time since oil spill

Calhoun County Health officials will open up a three mile section of the Kalamazoo River near Marshall Wednesday at 8 a.m. It’s the first time the river has opened to the public since a major oil spill July 26th, 2010. 

It’s just a tiny portion of the 37 total miles of the river that have been closed since the underground Enbridgepipeline ruptured. Crews have recovered more than a million gallons of oil from the river. 

“I don’t know how optimistic I am because the oil has seeped in so deeply,” Marshall resident Jennifer LaPietra said after a community meeting Tuesday night. She’s happy to see progress though.

LaPietra and her husband John walk the riverbanks pretty regularly. Cleanup stations are positioned where the river has opened in case people come in contact with oil. “That cleans up the outside of you, but what happens if you swallow some of it while you’re swimming?” LaPietra wondered. 

Calhoun County Health officials say people using the river may still see small oil flecks or oil sheen. But they say an assessment of that portion of the river shows it is safe for public recreation.

Susan Connolly lives just downstream from the spill in Marshall. She’s more worried about the long term health effects. 

“Pretty much the people and the environment are going to be the guinea pig for opening up this river because there’s not been a spill like this before,” Connolly said.

Connolly started a community action group where residents can share with one another what they see and what officials tell them. She hopes that’ll keep people living nearby better informed.

Ralph Dollhopf is an on-scene coordinator with the EPA. He says cleanup efforts will be less aggressive and more careful going forward.

“We could pull the feathers out of the goose to make oil go away. We can put a power washer on the turtle’s shell to make the oil go away but that wouldn’t be good for the animals,” Dollhopf said. “We can continue to be extremely very aggressive with the river but that’s not the best thing for the river.”

Dollhopf says the cleanup will focus on two more contaminated areas where the heavy tar sands oil has settled on the river bottom. They’ll trap the oil that’s mixed in with sediment there. Dollhopf say the switch is a formal sign the “crisis” of the spill is over.

Health officials hope to open the rest of the river to public recreation as soon as July, depending on the results of an assessment study to measure how much oil remains.

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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