Michigan Oil Spill Disaster: It’s the Smell that Hits You First


As soon as I heard that over 800,000 gallons of crude oil had rushed from a broken pipeline into the Kalamazoo River in Michigan, only a few hours from NWF’s Great Lakes Regional Center, I grabbed a camera and headed with other NWF staff to see for myself what was happening. Now we know that the oil has flowed 35 miles towards the Great Lakes and the EPA estimates the disaster at over 1 million gallons of oil.

The smell was the first thing that hit me as we approached the Kalamazoo River. Even ¼ a mile away from the river, we knew we were close to the oil spill, just by the smell. It’s pungent, somewhat nauseating, and definitely leaves you with a headache. My first thought was, “How could anyone still be in this town?” And that’s just the beginning.

As I approached the river, I didn’t really know what to expect. Sure we’ve seen the pictures of the Gulf catastrophe, but what would that look like in the Kalamazoo River?

Well, I got my answer: heartbreaking, dirty, messy, and overwhelming.

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There are signs posted warning the public to stay away. Local officials stop to remind us that benzene is polluting the air and to evacuate sooner rather than later. Animals are walking around covered in oil (like this oiled muskrat). And the residents of the town are at a loss for words.

A million questions seem to run through my head. How will we contain the spill? What do we do to protect the wildlife? Is the water ever going to be safe to drink?

We never think tragedies like this can happen to us … until they do. This week’s oil spill disaster is all too familiar these days. In fact, it is one of hundreds this decade.

Standing on the bank of the river I had one final thought: when will we finally learn our lesson about dirty fuels?

— By Danielle Korpalski, NWF Regional Outreach Coordinator in Michigan