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Kalamazoo River Oil Spill

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Hidden : 11/13/2011
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Connection to the Earth Science Curriculum

Essential Lessons:

Human impact on an ecosystem can take weeks, months or even years to become evident. But, in some cases, a catastrophic event can cause an immediate and devastating impact.  Can this human caused catastrophic event be reversed or even improve the ecosystem of the Kalamazoo River?

   Earth Science Literacy Principles-

1.   Big Idea 9: Humans significantly alter the Earth.

2.  Big Idea 3: The Earth is a complex system of interacting rock, water, air and life.

Common misconceptions 

1.  The Earth can absorb and neutralize any amount of waste and pollution over time.

2.  Technological fixes will save us from ruining our planetary environment.

3.  Dilution is still the solution to pollution.

 Michigan State Science Content Expectations Addressed:

E2.4B Explain how the impact of human activities on the environment, can be understood through the analysis of interactions between the four Earth systems.


E2.4A Describe renewable and non renewable sources of energy for human consumption (electricity, fuels) compare their effects on the environment, and include overall costs and benefits.


E4.1C  Explain how water quality in both groundwater and surface systems is impacted by land use decisions.


Bitmous Oil – A form of sandstone saturated with heavy oil.  Also called Tar sands.

API gravity index – America Petroleum Institute – index rating for oil density

Pleistocene Glacial epoch – from 2.5 million to 11,700 years ago.  Also known as the last Ice Age.

Permeable – having openings or holes for the ability to flow through something

Macro invertebrate – small organisms able to be seen with naked eye. Ie. Mayfly larvae, dragonfly larvae, etc.

PCB – Polychlorinated bephenyl – a class of organic compounds from manufacturing

Point Bar – an area where material is deposited

Cutting Bank Erosion – an area where material is eroded.

Sand vs point bar

Figure 2. Cut bank erosion and point bar deposition as seen on the Powder River in Montana.

Kalamazoo River Oil Spill EarthCache

Battle Creek to Kalamazoo, MI

Note: This is a multistop EarthCahce.  All 3 points are easily accessible, but for the 3rd point, the best visibility is on the
bridge sidewalk of a busy road, so watch for cars!

Kalamazoo Oil Spill Background Information:

   The July 26, 2010 Enbridge 6B Pipeline break and resulting oil spill occurred in Talmadge Creek, a cold water stream, (just outside Marshall, MI), which is a tributary of the Kalamazoo River a high quality warm water stream, which is part of the Lake Michigan Watershed.1 (

   Approximately 819,000 gallons of Bitmous* (a viscous, hydrocarbon mixture) oil was released before the pipeline break was contained.  The oil spread affected approximately 30 miles of the Talmadge Creek, to the west end of Morrow Lake.  The oil spread was contained on July 28, 2010 before it was able to mix with PCP residue at the bottom of the Kalamazoo River due to industrial waste near Kalamazoo, MI.  The oil (also known as tar sand), had a viscosity of 11 API, which is slightly less dense than water and therefore, sinks rather than floats on water.2

Due to a large amount of rainfall (about 5 inches) in the area several days prior to the oil spill, the river was at an elevated (flood) level and fast flowing.  The oil also evolved (weathered), where the more dangerous chemicals bonded with other chemical in the water (reducing oxygen levels for wildlife and coating them with a black gunk), or evaporated in the air (causing the smell)3

The spill has led to the evacuation of homes (of which Enbridge has bought 230 homes or properties), drinking water, swimming and fish consumption advisories.4

By summer of 2011, over 3,100 species of wildlife, bird, turtles, frogs, & mammals, have been caught, cleaned and released or are continuing care. 5

   Even though the Enbridge Oil spill occurred in Marshall, MI, there are several areas from Battle Creek to Kalamazoo that are still affected and are in the process of cleanup.  The main spill area is still closed off to the public, but these areas on this EarthCache will show where there are still pockets of submerged oil, and give you a good idea of what is involved with the cleanup / restoration effort.

Submerged Oil

Figure 1.Sumberged Oil Figure, "EPA Response to Enbridge Spill in Michigan",



The Kalamazoo River is influenced by Pleistocene glacial deposits that cover most of the watershed.  The soils are moderately fine to moderately coarse texture with permeable soil.  The water quality is still considered good based on macroinvertebrate studies, despite the PCP contamination. 6

Materials needed:  This information, a hand held GPS, ruler, binoculars (optional), a map of Battle Creek and Kalamazoo. (this helps as a handheld GPS doesn’t take roads into account!)  Make sure you know how to use your GPS, and enter the coordinates correctly

Tour of Kalamazoo River

Stop 1:  N 42o17.493’ W 085o33.752’

 Mayors Riverfront Park:  This is a Minor League/ picnic/public park along the Kalamazoo River on the Southeast side of Kalamazoo, MI.  There are many trees and walkways, a play area and abundant vegetation. 

   This area has not been impacted by the oil spill.  However, as you look around at this point you see evidence of natural erosion from the tree roots exposed at the large tree to your left, to the Observation deck that is closed.  If you look closely, you also see the recent flood lines from the heavy rains.   Take notes of the natural erosion and the appearance of the banks of the river and its makeup.  This will be your basis for comparison.

 Logging Q1:  What is the size of the sediment/soil/rocks at this area?   Does the river curve so that erosion is impacted at this point? (point bank for collecting or a cut bar for erosion?)

 Logging Q2:  What kind of animal life is present? (You may have to use your binoculars to check along the banks – be very quiet) Note:  Wildlife does include snails, waterbugs, etc., as these organisms are eaten by the larger consumers.


Stop 2:  Battle CreekLinear Park : N 42o20.624’ W 085o14.535’

   There was a black barrier a few yards beyond the Road end sign.  It has been removed as the ground on shore has been cleared.  The barrier was there to designate the cleaned / restored area.  Take note of the sign to the left that advises against boating, fishing, swimming and other water use due to the spill.  Was there a sign at Mayors Riverfront Park?

    There are yellow float booms in the river channeling floating oil to a point and white absorbent pads lining the banks.  There is evidence of new growth along the banks as a result of cleaning of rocks, tree bark, and soil replacement and reseeding with coconut matting.  Locally hired workers did the cleaning with Dawn dishwashing detergent and scrub brushes.  There is scum/light sheen of oil collected in the corner of the yellow booms.  As of Oct  8, 2011, The white absorbent pads have been removed, and straw added to protect the new growth.

 Logging Q3:   Compare the untouched area you saw at Riverfront Park and this area at Linear Park. There has been substantial restorative effort here. The area with the island has been dredged and sediment removed or soil replaced as well as the area that you are standing on.     Is this area a point bank (collecting) or a cut bar (erosion)? 

Logging Q4:  What is the size of the soil / rocks at this area?  How do you think the size of the rocks and soil will impact erosion at this point?

Logging Q5:  Is there any evidence  of wildlife?  (again, use your binoculars and be very quiet)

1 15 

1 1 

Stop 3:  Bridge at Historic Bridge Park (busy road) N 42o17.407’ W 085o07.002’

 (If the park is still closed – you may go over the bridge to the first street park there.)

There is still evidence of ongoing clean up – tanker collecting truck, dredging equipment, airboats.  There is still evidence of oil sheen, sometimes in football size pockets floating by. There is evidence of grass brushing (cleaning) and tree removal and soil dredging / removal as you travel back and forth from one side to another.

As of Oct 8, 2011, the dredging equipment has been removed, but evidence is still there.. 

 Logging Q6:  Compare this area to Linear Park (stop #2).  You notice that parts of the River bank have been stripped away to be cleaned or replaced.  Should Enbridge install artificial point banks (collection points) using the natural flow of the river to use for future oil collecting and testing sites for the sunken oil?

 Logging Q7:  What is the size of the soil and rocks at this point? How will this size impact erosion?

Logging Q8: Is there any evidence of wildlife (again, you may have to use your binoculars and be very quiet)





Figure 11. Workers mode of transportation - Historic Bridge Site.  Yonee Bryant-Kuiphoff - 7/23/11


Cleanup by the Numbers: 766,000 gallons of oil recovered

15.1 million gallons of oil/water collected and disposed

113,000 cubic yards soil/debris disposed

48 Boom locations

38,975 ft of boom deployed on river

$29.1 million cost to date

    (EPA’s Response to the Enbridge Oil Spill – July 11, 2011)


Author uncited (11/1/2010)  Daily Wildlife Reports.  Retrieved July

       28, 2011.

Author uncited (updated 7/11/11) EPA’s Response to The Enbridge Oil

       Spill.  Retrieved July 28, 2011.

Author uncited (July 8, 2011)  5.0 Kalamazoo River – Conceptual Site

Model.           csm-II_358533_7.pdf  Retrieved July 29, 2011

 Klug, Fritz  (2011, July 23) Kalamazoo River Oil Responders ‘Writing

       The Book’ on Submerged Oil Clean Up (with videos).  Retrieved


Schaetzl, Randall J., Darden Joe T. and Brandt, Danita S.

        MichiganGeography and Geology.  New York: Custom Print. 

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