Oil spill affecting fish, birds

Battle Creek, Mich – A murky cloud of gloom swirled around the
Circle D Wildlife Refuge in Vicksburg late last month. Volunteers
and federally licensed wildlife rehabilitators there awaited the
arrival of ducks and geese that were coated in oil from the
Enbridge oil spill in neighboring Calhoun County.

“When they get here, they’re just one big glob of black,” said
volunteer Beth Smoker. “The only way you know what they are is
because you already know that when they get here. You really can’t
tell from looking at them.

“I can’t believe how this oil just sticks to them,” she said
“You can see it on TV, but until you actually experience it, you
have no idea how bad it is.”

Circle D was the first facility to assist the oil-covered birds
and had cleaned about a dozen ducks, swans, and geese by the time
the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service opened its wildlife
rehabilitation center on Thursday, July 29, three days after the
spill was reported.

“We’re the only ones who have saved any animals since Monday,”
said Jeff DeCuypere, owner of Circle D and a federally licensed
wildlife rehabilitator. “We lost one Canada goose and one muskrat,
but we have a very high survival rate once they reach our
driveway.”

He attributed part of that success to the outpouring of
volunteer support from the local community. “It’s unfortunate, but
we can’t use all the people who offer to help,” he said.

Since July 29, all of the cleaning and rehabilitating of birds,
amphibians, and mammals has been handled through the USFWS.
According to federal officials, as of Aug. 5, a total of 64 Canada
geese, 52 turtles, 10 mallard ducks, five muskrats, three mute
swans, two domestic geese, one red-winged blackbird, and one blue
heron had been recovered and were under the care of federal
authorities. Twelve turtles and two frogs had been cleaned and
released. Several of the Canada geese were expected to be released
early last week.

On July 26, a 30-inch oil pipeline operated by Calgary,
Alberta-based Enbridge Inc. ruptured beneath Talmadge Creek, a
tributary of the Kalamazoo River. Before the leak could be
contained, between 800,000 and 1 million gallons of crude oil
seeped from the pipeline into the Calhoun County creek at the town
of Marshall. Talmadge Creek flows northwest into the Kalamazoo
River, and oil has been reported more than 30 miles downstream,
past the city of Battle Creek. The river has been closed to public
recreation from Marshall to Morrow Dam, and Gov. Jennifer Granholm
has declared a state of disaster for much of the area.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is overseeing cleanup
of the contaminated area, which could take months to complete,
according to federal officials.

As of last week, officials reported the oil spill had been
stopped and the oil contained along a 30-mile stretch of the river
between Marshall and Morrow Lake, west of Battle Creek. About 2
million gallons of oil and water had been recovered.

“The spill has been terrible on the wildlife in that area,” said
Mike Covey, a local resident who works at D and R Sports in
Kalamazoo. Despite officials recommending that residents do not
attempt to capture oil-covered wildlife, Covey said, “We’ve sold
out all of our salmon nets to people who are trying to capture
geese, heron, ducks, raccoons, muskrats, even turtles. Tons of
people are helping out.”

Anyone who sees oil-covered wildlife should immediately call
(800) 306-6837 to arrange for authorities to capture and pick up
the animals.

Rachel Mifsud, a herpetologist with Herpetological Resource
Management, was at the river a couple days after the spill
occurred, looking for areas in which her group could set traps to
catch oil-covered turtles.

“We’re permitted to catch them and rehabilitate them, but we’re
working with the (USFWS) and will turn over anything we catch to
them.

The impact the spill has had on fish wasn’t immediately known,
although there have been reports of dead fish along the river.

“That section of the river between (Marshall and Battle Creek)
is known for walleyes, smallmouth bass, crappies, catfish, and
carp,” Covey said. “Apparently, they stopped it before it got over
Morrow Dam. If it gets past that and downstream to the Allegan Dam,
there are trout and steelhead below that, then Lake Michigan.
Fortunately, it doesn’t look like it will affect that area of the
river.”

As of Aug. 6, just 12 dead fish had been recovered from the
Kalamazoo River, but fisheries biologists remain concerned that the
situation could take a turn for the worse.

“If there had been any significant die-off, (fish) would have
floated to the surface and people would have seen them and called
us,” said Jim Dexter, a DNRE Fisheries Division supervisor. “So
far, the oxygen levels have been fine in the areas we have been
monitoring them.

“I’m leery of saying that we’re past the point of experiencing
any big fish mortalities. The oil has gathered on the vegetation
and it is dying. As they decompose they take up oxygen and that
could create a problem,” he said. “I think if we’re going to have
any big issues they would probably occur next week. Temperatures
are going to be in the 90s and warm water doesn’t hold oxygen well.
With high water temperatures and high decomposition, we could still
have some mortalities.”

Dexter said there could also be some long-term problems with
reproduction and other physiological issues as the fish feed in a
contaminated environment.

The Fort Custer State Recreation Area, located on the Kalamazoo
River downstream from Battle Creek, remains open, although the
public access site on the river is closed.

“We are receiving many phone calls from concerned park patrons
who want to know the status of the park,” said Tony Trojanowski,
the park manager at Fort Custer Recreation Area. “There is a water
advisory from the Kalamazoo County Health Department that allows no
surface water activity. Our first concern is for the safety of our
park users, so we have closed the Kalamazoo River boating access
site and the Riverside Family Cabin.

Trojanowski said inland lakes in the area remain open for public
use.

“Eagle Lake is still safe for swimming and boating, and our
drinking water that comes from wells deep in the ground is fine.
Both Whitford-Lawler Lake and Jackson Hole Lake are also safe for
boating and fishing,” he said.

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