Emmett Township Turtles still suffering after Michigan oil spill Scientist and helpers still administering daily care to dozens of turtles

By Sarah Lambert

Battle Creek Enquirer

EMMETT TOWNSHIP, Mich. (AP) -- The oil spill in Talmadge Creek and the Kalamazoo River may have occurred more than 15 months ago, but it still defines every day for one man and the 30 turtles he'll care for over the winter.

Enbridge Inc.-contracted scientist Bob Doherty and three part-time helpers are still administering daily care to dozens of turtles that were rescued from the creek and river this spring and summer.

The turtles were too unhealthy to be released in time for winter hibernation and will have to spend the winter in a small one-room heated facility near Historic Bridge Park in Calhoun County's Emmett Township.

Throughout this summer's oil spill cleanup, turtles with oil on them were still being discovered, said Lisa Williams of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Some were cleaned in the field while others had to be taken into Doherty's wildlife center for care, Williams said.

In total, Doherty's team caught 4,200 turtles this year and checked them for oil, he said. Of those, 1,500 were cleaned.

Others had damage to their shells from boats. About a dozen were recorded as dead.

"It was a mix this summer of turtles that appeared to have oil that might have been on them since the original incident and some that had gotten into the submerged oil," Williams said.

As cleanup of last July's estimated 843,000-gallon oil spill continues, so does the investigation into its effect on turtles, fish and the bugs they eat. State and federal authorities are monitoring Enbridge's efforts as well as spearheading its own to assure that environmental harm is curbed and monitored.

The turtles are just one piece of the puzzle, which is being examined by a body called the Natural Resource Damages Trustees Council, said Nicole Zacharda, an enforcement specialist for the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality's Water Resources Division.

The trustees council, with members representing state, federal and tribal governments, currently is gathering data from the MDEQ, the Michigan Department of Natural Resources and Enbridge-hired contractors to evaluate the river's condition.

That data-gathering process will continue until work on the river ceases, Zacharda said.

"Once we have the data collected and evaluated and have basically determined the extent of the natural resource damage, that's when we would start evaluating potential projects that would compensate the trustees and the community as a whole," Zacharda said.

In the meantime, workers are still trying to remove submerged oil pockets from the bottom of the Kalamazoo River. There's evidence that the submerged oil, and the work itself, could be harming creatures in the water.

Studies conducted in September 2010 and September 2011 suggest that a population of fish in Talmadge Creek was either wiped out or moved out after the July 2010 oil spill, said Jay Wesley, southern Lake Michigan unit manager for the MDNR.

"In Talmadge Creek, there was enough oil where the oil was probably from the surface to the bottom of the creek," Wesley said. "In the Kalamazoo River itself, the oil mostly was on the surface. That's why the fish had to move or die basically there (in the creek)."

In 2011, more fish were found in the creek, but they were mostly adult fish, suggesting that fish may have moved into the creek after oil was flushed, vacuumed and soaked out of it.

Initially, there wasn't definitive evidence of harm to fish in the Kalamazoo, Wesley said.

But in isolated submerged oil cleanup spots, work had to be stopped because oxygen in the water was low enough to kill fish, Wesley said.

The likely cause was the isolation of sections of river that were being cleaned, Wesley said. New oxygen-rich water was not being pumped into those locations while heat and biological processes ate up the existing oxygen. Along with oxygen, fish need food to survive.

The macroinvertebrate (insect) population necessary for fish survival also appears to have diminished after the spill, said Mike Alexander, MDEQ senior aquatic biologist.

Although this could indicate less food for fish, turtles thus far appear to have enough to eat, Doherty said. Officials re-captured many turtles that had been cleaned and documented in the wildlife center before, measuring them for growth. The results were reassuring, Doherty said.

There currently are 30 turtles in care with four new turtles that hatched in the center last week, Doherty said. Most of the turtles in the center suffer from shell infections and are getting regular anti-biotic treatment, he said. The turtles are housed in round water tanks that are cleaned regularly.

They're expected to be returned to the river in May or early June.

Depending on the status of the actual cleanup, Doherty and his team may go out looking for more turtles after the winter, he said.

The final damages racked up by this spill and the conclusions that the Natural Resource Damages Trustees Council draws also will depend on the job Enbridge does cleaning up the mess its pipeline left, Zacharda said.

"The faster they can fix it, the narrower the universe of damages will be," she said.

Published: Tue, Nov 8, 2011