Volunteers and government officials scrambled on Friday to save geese and other wildlife damaged by an oil spill in a southern Michigan river as the Canadian company that owns the ruptured pipeline said the crude had been contained.
Enbridge Inc., based in Calgary, Alberta, said its focus was shifting to cleaning up the spilled oil in the Kalamazoo River, which it estimates at 820,000 gallons. The Environmental Protection Agency puts the total at more than 1 million gallons.
The oil is contained by boom and other devices that can keep it in place until vacuum equipment can suck it up, company spokesman Alan Roth said.
"It's been captured, it's not going anywhere," Roth said.
Company and federal officials say they don't believe the oil will reach Lake Michigan, where the Kalamazoo River empties about 80 miles from where the oil has been contained. But EPA officials say it could take a couple of months to clean up the spill, and the cause is under investigation.
Hundreds of workers and contractors were working on cleanup. Enbridge said it had recovered 100,800 gallons of oil so far and estimated that 420,000 gallons are in a holding area and will be pumped into tanks.
"No one is sugarcoating it," Roth said. "There's still a tremendous amount of work to do but good progress is being made."
Scientists fear the worse may be yet to come for fish in the river. Jay Wesley, a biologist with the state of Michigan, said the oil spill had killed fish in "very limited numbers" along the affected stretch of the river from Marshall westward into Battle Creek.
The bigger problems for fish may come within a week or so, if the oil spill results in decreased water oxygen levels. Wesley said insects, algae, frogs and turtles along the river have been killed in high numbers — which could hurt the fish food supply.
"The effects are probably going to be more long-term," Wesley said. "We probably won't know the full effects for weeks or months or years."
The Marshall area has been considered a good spot for bass fishing. Recreational anglers also fish the area for northern pike, catfish and suckers. Until the spill occurred, health officials considered fish taken from the waters from Marshall to Battle Creek OK to eat in limited amounts — unlike a downstream, westward stretch from Kalamazoo that is laden with PCBs.
A wildlife rehabilitation center staffed and managed by a Enbridge contractor near Marshall had received about 50 injured animals — mostly geese — by midday Friday. During a tour, two white-suited workers were trying to clean up an oil-soaked turtle, one holding and rotating the reptile while the other dabbed it with what appeared to be a cloth.
Nearby, four workers surrounded a tank while a dish holding food was placed in the muskrat's tank. The oil-slicked animal backed away from the dish, then slowly inched forward to investigate.
Birds and animals are examined and stabilized before they are decontaminated and the oil is washed away. The stabilization period may take at least 48 hours for a large bird as veterinarians and biologists determine whether it has regained enough strength to go through the decontamination process.
"It's really hard to see them covered with oil," said Linda Elliott of Focus Wildlife, contracted by Enbridge. "But you don't want to put them through the decontamination process until they are stable enough and strong enough to handle it."
The typical bird might spend up to two weeks at the center until it is banded and released back into the wild. It's not yet known where animals will be released.
More birds were being rehabilitated at the privately run Circle D Wildlife Refuge in Kalamazoo County.
Environmentalists traveling the river this week found oil-coated Canada geese huddled in a Battle Creek parking lot just off the river's banks. One was clearly in trouble, standing apart from the crowd with its tail feathers shaking in a sign of distress.
"It just looks weird ... the color," said Frank Szollosi of the National Wildlife Federation. "They're just not supposed to look this way."
Beth Wallace of the National Wildlife Federation saw an oil-coated muskrat trying to clean itself near Marshall — wiping at its face with its front paws and licking at the oil on its coat. A day later, she stood on the banks of the Kalamazoo River and told about her first experience with it on a 2001 canoe trip.
This week, oil seeped up on vegetation and shrubs hugging the shore — turning green leaves to a shimmery black. A rainbow-colored sheen was still visible on parts of the river, which has been closed down to fishing, boating and other recreation.
"Communities were built along rivers in Michigan," Wallace said. "It's the life source of a community. We have businesses around rivers, we have recreation around rivers ... on this stretch, it will take a long, long time for the river to recover."
Flesher reported from Traverse City, Mich.
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