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An Analysis of The Kalamazoo River Oil Spill and Its Devastating Effects on Our Environment

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Table of contents

  1. Introduction
  2. Objectives
  3. Analysis
  4. Recommendations


The Kalamazoo River oil spill was the worst oil spill in Michigan’s history. Well over 800,000 gallons of crude oil were spilled from an Enbridge pipeline in a creek upriver, and subsequently flowed downriver, causing devastating effects to the surrounding areas and the river’s ecosystem itself. It is clear that Enbridge dropped the ball, and that the entire situation was avoidable.

The spill received a quick response from governmental agencies. The Michigan Department of Environmental Quality partnered with the United States Environmental Protection Agency, as well as local agencies, to develop a plan to manage and restore the afflicted area, and to inform the community on the process. They released reports on the effects and the timeline of the effort.

As far as the spill goes, the cleanup management is straightforward: get every last drop of oil out of the river. The management of the aftereffects, however, is more complex. The questions that have to be answered include how the species of the river can rebound, and how the situation can be ultimately prevented from ever happening again. These are complicated questions and they have many different potential solutions.


This paper addresses the initial effects of the crude oil spill in the Kalamazoo River, in terms of the environment as well as the economy. From the perspective of different governmental agencies, it describes the timeline of the management process. Lastly, it explores potential management and restoration options to ensure this situation never happens in the future.


An interesting note, to start, is that the Kalamazoo River oil spill was the first ever tar sands oil (diluted bitumen) exposure in freshwater. This confused scientists, as they did not actually know what the short and long term effects of this would be. They turned to prior research on oceanic oil spills, as well as the ecological consequences of heavy metal in water (closest research to diluted bitumen) and their effects on the environment to accurately predict what would happen. The immediate effects they observed were essentially as expected. The surrounding residents were concerned about drinking water. They found that some of the groundwater supply was contaminated, but not to a dangerous level according to state standards. An immediate economical effect was the recreational value of the river, as it was immediately closed to boating, swimming, fishing, and other water activities that local residents previously enjoyed. It was opened a year later with the assurance that the oil is not toxic, and it was safe to be exposed to. Residents were wary, however, because the river was still dirty and not desirable for recreation[1]. Furthermore, one thing that scientists are sure of is that oil is eventually biodegradable, and does evaporate and break down into different chemicals. Evaporation of the oil put chemicals into the surrounding air, and showed devastating health effects on the residents immediately next to the river. The community reported headaches, dizziness, rashes, fatigue, and even more serious effects such as seizures Two health reports were released, one exploring the effects of oil vapor exposure, and the other examining the effects of being submerged in the oil. People were worried about long-term effects, however, and demanded a long term health study be conducted following their actual health issues through the next few years[2]. Scientists were unsure if this would be a long term consequence (luckily, it was not). There was some property damage, albeit not a huge scale, especially near Talmadge Creek (the initial starting point of the spill). Homes reeked of benzene, and yards were flooded with oil as it bubbled from the sediments up to the surface. The Calhoun County Department of Health reported an evacuation of 30-50 homes in the area[3]. A few years later, in 2013, the EPA released a report on the updated status of the river. They explained that the surface oil was completely removed, however, there was still an estimated over 100,000 gallons of oil trapped in the underlying sediment. This was problematic, because they could not easily remove it without adverse impacts to the ecosystem. Also, sediments move pretty quickly downriver as the river pushes them along. This caused concern for the sediments reaching Lake Michigan, where the river ultimately ends up[4]. The wildlife in the river was obviously affected heavily, as many fish and insects were killed by the lack of oxygen, as well as birds being covered in oil. It is clear, based on these studies and reports, that the immediate effects of the spill were detrimental, but the long-term effects are manageable and not extremely consequential.

The government response to the spill was quick, although it was a long process. The Michigan DEQ and the EPA immediately teamed up to solve the issue, as well as clean up the site. The day of the spill, July 26 2010, the EPA mobilized a team consisting of the MDEQ as well as local agencies. Meetings began discussing cleanup teams and methods of containment. They had to move fast as the oil quickly approached Lake Michigan, but they were able to contain it 80 miles from the tributary that flows into the lake. The EPA knew the public was confused and angry at the whole situation, and they did a good job at keeping the community informed. They held many public forums to update people on the status of the effort, as well as get their opinions on the matter. After declaring it a Superfund site, EPA heavily targeted Enbridge, the oil company responsible for the spill. They issued orders for them to help clean it up, as well as finance a majority of the expenses. By 2013, it was decided that the surface oil was mostly gone, but the oil in the sediments remained. The solution to this was dredging the soil. Dredging the soil meant using huge net-like mechanisms to disrupt the soil and allow the oil trapped beneath it to bubble to the surface of the water. Once on the surface, it gets cleaned just like it did initially. After the dredging project completed by the end of the year, the EPA discontinued its primary involvement with the site, and handed it over to the MDEQ[5]. The DEQ’s next steps after being handed the primary oversight position were simple: restore the Kalamazoo River back to its state pre-spill. They teamed up with the Michigan Department of Natural Resources and Governor Rick Snyder to facilitate this plan, which mainly consists of giving Enbridge orders on restoration[6]. The restoration efforts are continuing to this day.

The governmental response overall was up to standard. The EPA responded the day of and got a team together to sort the problem out before it got substantial. The trade-off here is that while a lot of wildlife was lost and ecosystems were heavily damaged, the impact on humans was relatively minimal. It definitely could have been a much worse situation, especially if the oil would have reached Lake Michigan. That would have caused exponentially worse effects than it did. The more important question to answer is what preventative measures can be taken to ensure that this never happens again. Oil spill occurrences have gone way down since the first pipelines and freighters began transporting it. However, there are still areas where pipes are old and fragile, as well as misinformed pipeline operators (the cause of this oil spill in particular; the workers thought it was a false alarm at first). The immediate solution to the old pipes problem is an infrastructure upgrading project. Although costly, replacing 50 plus year old pipes that are well past their expiration date would prove to exponentially reduce the chance of spills and ruptures. The arguably better, large-scale solution would be to start phasing out these old pipes and transition to renewable energy sources in the areas where the oil is ending up. This would ultimately reduce the risk of a spill to zero. The problem with this solution is that it is long term, and there is still the risk of spills occurring during the transition period. As far as the worker problem is concerned, automation is an option. The technology exists, and the alarms could be better monitored and understood this way as well. The trade-off is a loss of employment for current workers, however. Furthermore, the renewable energy idea can apply to kill two birds with one stone and get rid of the need for pipeline operators in the first place. This would, again, put them out of employment, but job opportunities in renewable energy would open up, and their skills would easily translate to this area. Through these prevention options, the risks of oil spills will continue to drop, and will reach zero in the near future. It is a matter of getting policy makers and interest groups on board, and then setting a plan going forward.


The significance of this report is that it shows the observed impacts of a crude oil spill of this caliber (diluted bitumen) for further use in the event of a future tar sands oil spill. It also evaluates the successes of the governmental agencies in their responses, which provides a framework of how to handle situations like these in the future. The potential prevention solutions will be relevant in the very near future as the pipes get older and the oil supply gets closer and closer to complete depletion.

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An Analysis of the Kalamazoo River Oil Spill and Its Devastating Effects on Our Environment. (2018, November 15). GradesFixer. Retrieved December 5, 2022, from
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