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Ruptured Oil Pipe Sends 877,000 Gallons of Crude Oil into Kalamazoo River, Threatening People and Wildlife

The spill is believed to be the largest in the history of the Midwest.

You could call it "the other oil spill."

Not two weeks after BP pronounced the beginning of the end of oil leaking into the Gulf, a ruptured pipe in southwest Michigan sent at least 877,000 gallons of crude oil pouring into the Kalamazoo River. The spill is believed to be the largest in the history of the Midwest.

More than an uneasy echo of the Gulf Coast debacle, the Midwest spill carries with it unique stakes: the contaminated river feeds into Lake Michigan about 60 miles west of the leaking pipe, which in turn is part of the Great Lakes basin, holding twenty percent of the earth's freshwater. Michigan, itself has more miles of freshwater shoreline than any state or nation in the world. While cleanup crews hope to contain the spill before it reaches the coast of a particularly precious resource, efforts were challenged by this week's rain, falling on a river that is already running high and fast.

"The river is already near flood levels, and if more rain comes, it will be trouble. Rainfall is not our friend," Mary Dettloff, spokesperson for Michigan's Department of Natural Resources and Environment, told AlterNet.

Danielle Korpalski, the Midwest regional outreach coordinator for the National Wildlife Federation, told AlterNet that the number one priority is containing the oil before it reaches Lake Michigan.

"It's already bad enough to be destroying the Kalamazoo River. We have to stop it before it reaches the lake and causes a lot more problems," Korpalski said.
Also downstream from the spill is a federal Superfund site. While the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, which is coordinating cleanup, attempted to keep oil from the site, reports indicated that the spill reached it by Wednesday evening.

While a foul stench thickens the air, thirty households have been relocated. Dead fish are floating in the river and oil-soaked Canada geese are struggling to survive. The Michigan Department of Agriculture issued an advisory against using the Kalamazoo River for irrigation and livestock, and the EPA is testing both surface water and air quality. Officials indicate that drinking water is not affected, and it is offering no warnings to residents against using the tap.  However, in the heart of summer, high temperatures make it more likely that oil will evaporate into benzene. If people breathe this chemical in for an extended period off time, they are susceptible to poisoning that disrupts normal blood processes.

Bonnie Jo Campbell, author of  American Salvage, lives near the site of the spill. She toured it Wednesday morning, including at the 35th Street Bridge, near the point on Morrow Lake where authorities hoped to contain the spill.  By that evening, oil passed this point.

"I didn't see that anything (relating to cleanup) had happened. No one was there but a news van waiting for something to happen," Campbell told AlterNet.
She added that she is uncertain about the potential success of cleanup efforts, given that, "there's a strong current (and) the oil swirls around. It's not floating on top like in the Gulf."

The pipeline is owned and operated by Enbridge, Inc., a Calgary-based company that has shut down the 30-inch-wide pipe, but has stated that it doesn't know what caused the spill. The Lakehead pipeline stretches from Alberta to Quebec, spanning 1,900 miles. Part of one of the largest oil pipeline systems in the world, it carries crude oil to refineries throughout the U.S. Midwest and eastern Canada. Because it crosses international lines, the federal government regulates it. For this reason, the National Transportation Safety Board is taking the lead on the investigation into the oil spill's cause.

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