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Local helps at Marshall oil spill

August 18, 2010 - As a firefighter/medic with the Brandon Fire Department, David Castle routinely protects and cares for township residents. Recently, however, his skills were needed in Marshall, where an oil spill last month has impacted area residents, wildlife, and ecology.

A ruptured pipeline owned by Enbridge, Inc. spilled approximately 1 million gallons of crude oil into Talmadge Creek and ultimately the Kalamazoo River on July 26, according to news reports. On Aug. 5, Castle was notified that as a member of the North Oakland Hazardous Materials Team (HAZMAT), he would assist with the disaster from Aug. 6-11. A Brandon firefighter since 1998, Castle has been a member of HAZMAT for the past five years and receives special training monthly on mitigating chemical spills. HAZMAT members can be called to isolated events at private homes, like they were last month when a township resident mixed pool chemicals, causing an explosion, or accidents in public places, like a tanker truck that rolls over and dumps thousands of gallons of petroleum into a culvert.

This most recent call, Castle said, is the largest disaster he has worked on since joining HAZMAT.

"It's a mess, but there was nothing malicious about it, it's not an act of terrorism," he said. "It's like any other job, it needs to be cleaned up and we're providing safety for residents. I saw a lot of oil— on the water, on the shores. I've never seen anything like that before— it covers the shores, the water, there is wildlife involved, they had a wildlife refuge cleaning area set up. They were doing shock blasts, setting explosions off to keep animals away."

Castle's job, however, was to assist the Environmental Protection Agency and provide oversight of CTEH, a contractor Enbridge hired to do air monitoring.

He worked 12-hour shifts for five days, driving all along the spill area, which reached to Battle Creek, making 30 to 40 stops per day and using instruments to monitor air quality at each location. Castle was testing for multiple gases.

"Benzene was the big one," he said. "It's a byproduct of the oil, the most dangerous gas and the biggest volume-wise. Inhaling it can cause respiratory distress and it's a carcinogen."

Hundreds of homeowners, nursing home residents, and businesses were evacuated from the area after the spill. While monitoring the air in hot spots, Castle had to wear a mask, but not full protective gear. He recalls meeting one family from the area whose daughter was sick from the fumes and had been hospitalized.

"I told them blood tests were available for them and explained what benzene was," Castle said. "Their daughter had extreme headaches, nausea and vomiting, but was released from the hospital."

EPA Deputy Incident Commander Mark Durno described the progress made on cleanup of the spill as "remarkable," but said there is several months of work to be done before the oil is removed from the environment.

"It's almost a 1-million-gallon spill and something that big doesn't clean up overnight," he said. "The cleanup has generated over 6 million gallons of liquid removed from the environment, including oil and contaminated water. Several thousand tons of contaminated debris have been removed for final disposal and over 6,000 tons of contaminated soil."

The EPA has rated the spill a Type 1 incident, requiring the largest number of resources the EPA has available and more than 1,400 people were working at the site on Tuesday. He praised the work of HAZMAT and said the air quality has improved to "good," despite petroleum odors in the area, which will remain as long as the oil does, but the benzene and other compounds have dissipated.

The EPA has approved up to $13 million for response efforts, all of which will be paid back by Enbridge. Thus far, the EPA has spent $9 million of the authorized funds.

The National Transportation Safety Board is investigating the cause of the break in the pipeline. The 30-inch diameter pipeline travels from Griffith, Ind. to Sarnia, Canada and includes portions in southeast Michigan. Castle showed a map of where the pipeline goes on Tuesday and it appears the pipeline actually runs through Brandon Township, although Durno couldn't confirm it.

"The bottom line is, accidents of this magnitude are rare," he said. "In our region, we've only seen two or three pipeline breaks with this volume over the last 20 years. This is the biggest one."

Durno said if the response efforts continue as they presently are, long-term effects of the spill should be "minimal." More than 400 animals have been collected, including geese and turtles. Of those, 220 are in the cleaning process and 137 animals have been released. The remainder, he said, were dead on arrival or had to be euthanized.

"Obviously, there is already some damage to wildlife and there is certainly damage to the ecology, but the river will come back," Durno said. "Nature is a powerful force and over time, nature will heal itself. Our job is to expedite the healing process."

Enbridge officials did not return calls for comment.

Susan covers Brandon Township and Ortonville
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