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Oil spill in Michigan's Kalamazoo River has echoes of Gulf of Mexico disaster

An oil spill in the Kalamazoo River has set off a small-scale reenactment of the Gulf of Mexico's drama in farm country 100 miles west of Detroit.

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By Kari Lydersen and David A. Fahrenthold
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, August 6, 2010

MARSHALL, MICH. -- In the Summer of the Spill, history is already repeating itself, this time in Michigan.

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An oil spill in the Kalamazoo River has set off a small-scale reenactment of the Gulf of Mexico's drama in farm country 100 miles west of Detroit. The villain is different: a broken pipeline, not a blown-out well. The oily birds are Canada geese, not pelicans.

But other plot points are eerily similar: A large company with safety violations. Regulators who didn't act fast enough. Claims centers. Containment boom. Broken equipment that everybody's waiting to examine.

And now, questions about how much of the oil is gone and how much is just unaccounted for.

"The pattern that we see here is a pattern of inadequate oversight and supervision [in government] and an industry that appears to cut corners," said the National Wildlife Federation's Tim Warman, who helped write a report documenting hundreds of accidents in the oil and gas industry in the past decade.

It went to the printer last month, two days before the Michigan spill began.

"The pattern suggests that we're going to see more of them," Warman said.

The Michigan spill appears to have begun late July 25 when something broke in a 30-inch pipeline that carries oil from Canada to Midwestern refineries.

The leak wasn't noticed until 11:45 the next morning. By then, an estimated 19,500 barrels (819,000 gallons) had escaped. That isn't much compared with the gulf spill, in which 4.9 million barrels (205.8 million gallons) escaped, according to an analysis this week. But it was enough to turn tiny Talmadge Creek into a stream of oil and make a section of the larger Kalamazoo River run black.

An Environmental Protection Agency official on the scene said it was the most destructive oil spill ever in the Midwest.

"I don't know if we'll feel safe ever again. That's the mind-set this gives you," David Orban, who lives on the creek, said at a public hearing Monday. Nearby homes were evacuated, and residents were left worrying about tainted air and drinking water.

As in the gulf, scrutiny has fallen on an obscure federal agency charged with preventing this kind of calamity. There, it was the Minerals Management Service. Here, it is the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration, an arm of the Transportation Department.


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