Nearly three years later, you have to know what to look for. It takes a hard look at the flood plains over the banks of the Kalamazoo River to see the effects of an incident that covered the southwest Michigan area with oil.

But it doesn’t take much to imagine what homeowners along the area near the spill think, even three years after the July 2010 rupture that, according to pipeline owner Enbridge, released about 843,000 gallons of oil. More than 150 homes have wells tapping that water. Those wells have ongoing testing.

Enbridge says its clean-up regimen since the spill has gotten the vast majority of the oil out of the river and that it’s taken steps to prevent future incidents. But residents have deep concerns about surface water, groundwater and whether any of the oil that spilled will eventually seep from one to the other.

The Kalamazoo-area spill illustrates a tension modern life: We all use oil, whether it’s drilled in Saudi Arabia or mined from Canadian sands, and we all need water, whether it comes from municipal piping or a well in our backyard. A recent excursion to the area with the Institutes for Journalism & Natural Resources offered a wide-angle view of the issues that arise when oil and water mix.

Well Testing

Deb Miller is one of the residents whose well qualifies for periodic testing. She’s had two tests since the spill, both paid for by Enbridge and overseen by the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality.

“After they do the water sampling, a month and a half, two months later we get a letter from Enbridge saying this is what the testing shows,” Miller said.

Drillers installed her well in spring 1999. It goes 100 feet down through clay, sand, broken rock and, eventually, water-bearing rock and shale. Miller’s property sits about five and a half miles from where the oil entered Talmadge Creek. The creek brought the oil to the river and the Millers have about 400-500 feet of frontage on the river near Ceresco Dam.

Her well is about 100 feet from the river and the proximity makes her nervous. “Before the spill, our well was just a couple years old,” she said, adding that it was tested about a year earlier.

“I know our water was good before.”

But her family hasn’t used the water for drinking or cooking since the day of the spill, even though tests show nothing but elevated iron levels, which she chalks up to Calhoun County’s subsurface geology and says is consistent with what neighbors see.

An assessment released in February by the Michigan Department of Community Health agrees.

“Two metals, iron and nickel, were detected above health-based screening levels in some samples from a few wells. However, iron and nickel were previously detected from wells in Calhoun and Kalamazoo Counties and are likely naturally occurring metals,” the assessment concluded.

But, with just a few years between the incident and the testing, that’s not enough to ease Miller’s fears. “I think we’re probably looking at, in my mind, 10 years,” she said before she would feel confident in the water’s safety. She says local health department officials have told her they’d be shocked to see any effect on groundwater within five or 10 years.

Paul Makoski, environmental health manager with the Calhoun County Health Department, expects a long-term testing regime.

“There’s going to be testing of this groundwater long after I retire,” he said. And it could be years before an effect, if any, on groundwater is known.

“In our county with our kind of geology, we may have groundwater that moves two inches a year. It’s going to take a long time for whatever may be in the soil to get anywhere before we can detect it.”

Still, Miller wonders about a well she used to own. She sold a commercial property to Enbridge late last year. The company bought dozens of properties near the spill site, and she said wells on those properties are not monitored. The well at her business, she said, was much shallower than her home well.

“Our well was behind our store, within 20 feet of the river and it was a 20-foot shallow,” she said. “If one was going to go, it was that one.”

Makoski says the health department checks up on wells and septic systems on land bought by Enbridge after the spill to “verify that things are OK and up to standard.” None of that checking has found oil-related compounds.

Enbridge Moves Forward

The Calgary, Alberta-based Enbridge owns and operates the pipeline that runs through Marshall, Mich., the site of the rupture.

“We had not experienced a spill of that magnitude prior to this,” said Jason Manshum, Enbridge, public affairs and community relations for the region that includes this pipeline—called 6B. “That’s the largest spill in the 60 year history of Enbridge.” The magnitude is unmistakable: 20,000 barrels of oil spilled and almost $1 billion spent so far on cleanup.

Environmental groups and residents have often brought up the issue of the type of oil carried through 6B at the time of the spill. The diluted bitumen, or dilbit, came from Canadian tar sands. Much of the criticism has focused on how the oil behaved after the rupture, and critics say the heavy nature of bitumen makes it much more likely to sink after diluents vaporize, presenting problems for effective recovery. Manshum says it’s not that simple. Yes, diluents like benzene went airborne, making the remaining oil thicker. But he says the turbulence of the river and mixing with organic material were the real culprits in bringing a small part of the oil into the sediment.

“The vast majority of the oil that hit the water was recovered through traditional means, so think vac trucks or vacuum trucks, skimmers, absorbent pads. … In fact, by the end of the initial emergency response, which was roughly November 2010, Enbridge had recovered 18,000 barrels of the 20,000 that leaked, and was able to take it to our terminal in Griffith, Ind., and recycle it, put it back into the system.”

Remaining oil, he says, is particularly difficult to recover. “Today, if you were in an area where there was some oil left in the sediments, it literally is pepper flakes or smaller,” he says.

That oil, as difficult as it will be to remove from the river, is what concerns residents, and state and federal officials.

Remediation and Monitoring 

The Environmental Protection Agency in March ordered further dredging and containment for three areas, including at Ceresco Dam near the Millers’ property. Monitoring of groundwater also continues.

“The state still does still have some concerns for groundwater monitoring,” said Michelle DeLong of Michigan’s Department of Environmental Quality. “We want to make sure there is long-term monitoring where appropriate, so we’re looking to establish yet another groundwater management plan from Enbridge that we’d be able to use to identify specific areas of concern.

“To date, the data hasn’t indicated a major intrusion into groundwater.” The EPA backs that up. Brad Dollhopf, EPA’s coordinator for the site, says Enbridge was ordered to conduct assessments on all nearby wells, and that monitoring went on for close to a year.

“The data show that there are not contamination issues associated with the spill at those sampling locations,” he said.

Yet, as Makoski points out, years could pass without a trace of oil showing up in area wells.

As those years pass, everyone involved will continue to play their roles. Enbridge will emphasise its record of safety and effective cleanup, regulators and health officials will maintain their oversight, and residents will remain skeptical of both.

“I’m not against pipelines, I put gas in my car just like everyone else, but we have to be safe,” Miller said.