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Rescuers work to save animals affected by southern Michigan oil spill

July 30, 2010 |  4:18 pm

Oiled muskrat

MARSHALL, Mich. — Volunteers and government officers 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. 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.

Biologists fear the worst may be yet to come for fish in the river. Jay Wesley, a fish 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."

EPA officials say it could take a couple of months to clean up the spill, and the cause is under investigation.

Company and federal officials say they don't believe the oil will reach Lake Michigan, into which the Kalamazoo River empties. The EPA says the oil appears to be contained near a key spot on the river some 80 miles east of Lake Michigan.

Hundreds of workers and contractors are working on cleaning up the river. Calgary, Alberta-based Enbridge said Friday that 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.

Health officials went door-to-door Thursday, telling Calhoun County residents in about 30 to 50 homes near the spill to evacuate because of air quality concerns. Others were told to use bottled water for drinking and cooking.

About 20 injured animals -- mostly birds -- were being treated Thursday at a wildlife rehabilitation center near Marshall in Calhoun County, the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service said. An additional 15 birds were being rehabilitated at the privately run Circle D Wildlife Refuge in Kalamazoo County.

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.

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 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."

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-- Tim Martin, Associated Press

Photo: Marshall, Mich., resident Dave Jenkins holds a muskrat as a group attempts to clean it following the oil spill. Credit: Jonathan Gruenke / Associated Press

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