Michiganders need not feel sorry for Louisianans anymore. We can feel sorry for ourselves. We have our own version of the BP oil disaster. We have the Enbridge pipeline spill.
Tuesday, at the 15 Mile Road bridge in Marshall Township, people hung their heads down toward the sludge in the water. The oil in the Kalamazoo River reached several layers below the surface.
It swirled like a bundt cake, churning and mixing, blue, black, brown, sometimes rose colored. Standing three feet above it on a cement retaining wall, I imagined I was elsewhere. The tar drippings from another guy’s feet had stained the cement. Oil had soaked the vegetation on the riverbank.
I’ve been to the lagoons of Lagos, Nigeria, where hundreds of thousands of the 9 million people there do commerce and excrete from dock to dock or canoe to canoe just a foot above the surface. One false move and you’re draped in E. coli and needing treatment for skin, bladder and kidney infections.
The oil-rich, oil-polluted Niger Delta, in another part of the country is even worse.
But I won’t need to go there. I can get the experience here now.
How could this happen to us? We are not supposed to be the disaster state. Man-made joblessness, yes. But not man, or woman, destroying her environment.
It’s hard to accept. We participate in our own destruction. Our oil-based lifestyles cost far more than $2.75 a gallon.
Dave Dempsey, the dean of Michigan conservation writers, documented the Kalamazoo River’s plight in his 2001 book, “Ruin & Recovery: Michigan’s Rise as a Conservation Leader.” Former Gov. William Milliken wrote the foreword.
The paper industry began abusing the river in the 1860s. The clear water and surrounding woods were ideal. By the 1960s, Dempsey writes, “It was almost impossible to find fish. Sludge worms, considered highly ‘pollution tolerant,’ were almost the only aquatic life to survive.”
The Kalamazoo also hosted “the rat-tailed maggot” that was “able to draw oxygen from the surface of the river with a long breathing tube.”
Dempsey shows that municipal sewage helped kill the Kalamazoo. But the paper mills’ PCB chemicals were the worst. The Kalamazoo River Superfund site is among America’s largest. It’s near Plainwell.
Cleanup has gone in fits and starts for 30 years.
In April of this year, a federal bankruptcy judge ruled that Lyondell Chemical Co. has to pay $103 million toward cleaning up the PCBs and other junk in the river. The EPA has said that’s still not enough.
Now Michigan has to contend with Enbridge Energy Partners, based in Houston and Calgary. When will they pay for what they did? Or do we consumers, taxpayers and residents just keep paying because we have no alternative to oil?
(A VERSION OF THIS STORY FIRST APPEARED IN THE DETROIT FREE PRESS, AUGUST 1, 2010)