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East New York

Another oil spill

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Did you know that there are more than 100 oil spills reported every year? I guess they don't deem them important enough to publicize.

 

By MATTHEW DOLAN for The Wall Street Journal

 

BATTLE CREEK, Mich.—An oil spill from an underground pipeline connecting the U.S. to Canada has contaminated roughly 20 miles of the Kalamazoo River in south-central Michigan, prompting the pipe's Canadian owner and U.S. officials on Wednesday to double their resources to contain and clean up the mess.

 

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency estimated that more than one million gallons have escaped. That would make it one of the largest ever in the history of the Midwest.

 

Unlike the BP PLC oil gusher in the Gulf of Mexico, this spill was capped relatively quickly after its owners were able to shut down the line almost immediately after its discovery. The pipe rupture has already forced the evacuation of several dozen residents who live near the Kalamazoo River, forced the river's closure to the public and raised questions about whether the pipeline's owner reported the spill in a timely way.

 

The line owned by Enbridge Energy Partners LP is a 30-inch pipe that moves light synthetic, heavy and medium crude oil northeast about 1,900 miles from Griffith, Ind., through Michigan and just over the border to Sarnia, Ontario.

 

On Wednesday, residents said the noxious smell from the spill has dissipated, but some were still leaving the area.

 

Dorothy Sheldon, of Ceresco, Mich., said she has been suffering from an aching head and upset stomach since Monday, when the stench of oil first filled her home.

 

"There is no fresh air here," Ms. Sheldon said as she left her home with a week's work of clothes and pet Chihuahua. "Everybody should leave."

 

A hot line set up to deal with the spill assured callers the toxic air isn't life threatening and advises them to get plenty of fresh air.

 

Looking out over her back porch, Ms. Sheldon said in a phone interview that the river where she used to watch fish jump has now been scarred. Gone, she said, is the true reflection from the Kalamazoo, leaving a swollen body of water marred by the false impression of steam rising.

 

Near the western tip of the oil slick's far reaches sits Dog On Inn, an animal boarding facility on 11 rural acres on the southern banks of the Kalamazoo. Owner Kristin Whitworth, 24 years old, said she and her sister noticed the smell "like burning tar, like a car with a bad leak" Monday morning.

 

"I'm not going anywhere," said Ms. Whitworth, glancing down at the wisps of oil still swirling despite a strong afternoon rainshower. "But guess I won't be kayaking for a long, long time."

 

After the leak was discovered on Monday morning on a creek near the company's pump station in Marshall, Mich., the pipeline was shut down when its isolation valves were closed off, according to officials at the parent company, Enbridge Inc. of Calgary, Alberta.

 

Federal officials said Wednesday that the timeline involved in the spill remains under investigation by several agencies.

 

Officials said it would be weeks before an official cause of the pipe break is determined. Feedback from the initial portions of the investigation is expected in the next few days to provide telling clues about the origins of the leak, company officials said.

 

Enbridge also battled an oil spill in North Dakota in January of this year, and another in Alberta in January 2009. More than two years ago, the company also suffered one in Minnesota in December 2007, according to published reports.

 

Patrick Daniel, Enbridge's chief executive, told reporters here in a news conference Wednesday morning that his company is doubling its 150-person work force in Michigan and will increase the size of oil-corraling booms to about 31,000 feet from its current 14,000 Wednesday. The company has as much as 45,000 feet worth of boom on-hand.

 

"Our intention is to return your communities" to its state before the spill, said Mr. Daniel. "We still have a lot of work to do."

 

According to the EPA, 17 collection sites have been set up on the river, and 2,300 barrels' worth of oil have been recovered so far.

 

Among the workers was Corey Kumm, who stood in a mosquito-infested wooded riverbank as his fellow Enbridge employees stretched almost 800 feet of floating orange boom along the north side of the river. Using the river's current to bend the line gently, the boom would be dragged back to the river's south side, where the assembled oil would be drawn in by a surface skimmer and then vacuumed into waiting tanker trucks.

 

The company also plans to unearth the pipeline at the breakpoint near Marshall, Mich., in an effort to determine the cause of the rupture, repair the line and restore the oil flow in coming days, according to Enbridge officials. Those comments drew scorn from some elected officials and gobstruck residents who gawked at the river filled with florescent-orange oil-collecting booms from bridges over the Kalamazoo.

 

"It's simply outrageous that Enbridge is actively making plans to re-open the pipeline within a matter of days when we still don't know what caused the spill in the first place," U.S. Rep. Mark Schauer (D., Mich.) said in a statement Wednesday afternoon.

 

Ralph Dollhopf, the on-scene coordinator for the EPA which is leading the government's efforts, said that the spill does not yet appear to have fouled air quality or groundwater to levels considered dangerous. Local health officials said they would continue to monitor air and water quality, reminding local residents that large swaths of the river remained closed to all public activity.

 

—Sharon Terlep contributed to this article.

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