Airboats and booms on the Kalamazoo River between Battle Creek and Historic Bridge Park in September 2011. (Courtesy: John Grap/Batte Creek Enquirer)
MARSHALL, Mich. (Detroit Free Press) -- Most of the portion of the Kalamazoo River closed after an oil spill almost two years ago has been reopened to recreation, according to officials working on the cleanup.
Thursday's announcement notes that an approximately 1,000-foot portion of the river known as the Morrow Lake delta remains closed and that boaters would need to pull their watercraft out of the river to access the river impoundment known as Morrow Lake, which is downstream. Other sections of the river are also restricted because of the ongoing cleanup but boaters would be able to travel around those areas.
The closed areas are designated by buoys, which residents are asked to steer clear of, according to a press release from various local, state and federal agencies.
However, the bulk of the 35 miles of river that were closed after the spill of what is known as tar sands oil or diluted bitumen have reopened.
The EPA notes that more than 1.1 million gallons of oil have been collected from the area where an Enbridge Energy pipeline ruptured near Marshall in July 2010. The company estimated the size of the spill at more than 800,000 gallons of oil. The investigation into the cause has not yet been completed.
Despite the river opening, an unknown amount of oil from the spill remains submerged in the river, and sheen, a filmy substance floating on the water, can be seen on the river. The sheen could be from the Enbridge oil, parking lot runoff or from motorboats, or it could occur naturally as vegetation decomposes, according to the press release.
U.S. EPA spokesman Don de Blasio said the river was reopened based on the assessment of local and state health officials that contact with residual oil could cause skin irritation but no long-term health effects.
"The health agencies recommend washing skin and clothes with plain soap and water as soon as possible after coming in contact with oil. Stations with cleaning wipes have been set up near kiosks at launch stations to clean skin and boating equipment," the press release said.
The reopening of most of the river has already drawn some criticism.
Josh Mogerman, a spokesman for the Natural Resources Defense Council, said much remains unknown about tar sands oil. He called it fundamentally different from other types of oil.
"This is one of the biggest tar sands oil cleanups ever, and there are a lot of questions about what we do know and what we don't know," he said, urging officials to be conservative when considering the oil's impact on human health. "We're putting folks along the banks of the Kalamazoo River into a bit of a science experiment."
By Eric D. Lawrence, Detroit Free Press staff writer