June 28, 2010 | Myrna Anderson

Geologist Gerry Van Kooten lends his expertise on the Kalamazoo Oil Spill.

Gerry Van Kooten, currently researching in Alaska, has been spending time online: reading about the pipeline leak that has spilled more than one million (recently estimated) gallons of oil into Michigan's Kalamazoo River. Van Kooten, who worked on the recovery of Prince William Sound after the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill, talked about the difference between ocean and river cleanup, how to get rid of all that oil and about nature's ability to rebound.

How big is the Kalamazoo River spill?

Twenty-thousand barrels is a lot of oil. You multiply barrels by 44 to get gallons. I’m surprised. That’s a lot of oil to leak out of a pipeline. They should have pressure sensors on the pipeline, and if a leak happens, the pressure sensor will show that and shut down the pipeline, and maybe that’s what happened. The amounts coming out of pipelines are usually in the hundreds.

Is there a difference between an oil spill on a river and a spill in the ocean?

On a river, you have a more confined situation, and, of course, the hope is to keep it confined and not let it get out to Lake Michigan where it can spread in all directions. When oil gets out on water, a number of things happen. One of the things that happens is it will begin to evaporate. One of the differences is the wave action. Wave action on the ocean disperses it and makes it into this chocolate mousse that often washes up on beaches. That’s what you see on beaches in the Gulf Coast because it's had 50 miles to travel. In a river you don’t have that. The evaporation will be the same (on a river). I would guess the biodegradation will be slower. Probably half the oil will be eaten by different microbes . . . . The population of these oil-eating microbes in a river is smaller (than on the ocean), so after a spill the population grows over a period of weeks to months. That activity is slowest where the water is quietest and there’s little wave activity.

Does oil interact differently with fresh and salt water?
I don’t guess the water salinity has anything to do with it. In Prince William Sound the place where the oil persisted the longest was in quiet bays. It degrades the slowest, and it could last for years. It’s usually buried in the sub-surface by that time. Another advantage is that this spill is happening when the temperatures are the highest. It speeds up the evaporation, and it increases the microbe activity. So, for instance, the Gulf of Mexico spill—I read a headline that it’s disappearing faster than they had expected, and it’s probably because of the warm temperatures.

What are the different processes for cleaning up an oil spill? And what is a boom?

A boom is a barrier. It’s a floating barrier that they use to corral the oil. The oil will rise to the top, and they’ll drag the boom over top of the water to collect the oil. Some of the booms are just barriers, and some are made of oil-absorbing material. The idea is to corral the oil, and then if you can do that, you can suck it up or pick it up, something like that. That . . . works on the surface oil . . . Some oil dissolves in the water . . . . (Van Kooten said chemical dispersants, used to break up oil slicks, aren't as effective in river cleanup as they are on the ocean.) Dispersants have a toxicity of their own. You take the good with the bad when you use dispersants. You might better pick (oil) up than spray dispersants.

What outcomes can we expect on habitat and wildlife in the areas bordering the river?

There’s going to be a big impact. Without a doubt, there’ll be a big impact . . . . Going to possibly kill fish and possibly kill birds . . . . All kinds of different species could be impacted differently.

Is there something we can do to avoid these kinds of spills?

We can take a really close look at the pipeline system. How come so much oil came out? If this had been a 2,000 barrel spill versus a 20,000 barrel spill, I wouldn’t have been surprised. That’s more normal . . . . One issue is the size of the spill, and the other is to look at zero spills. Do they need more valves; do they need more equipment or a faster response time?

How long might we expect to see the effects of this spill?

I would suspect that after a year, you would have to look very hard to find any oil, but there may be effects for a number of years . . . . Oil is a natural material. There’s a lot of it that comes out on the surface of the earth, and nature is remarkably resilient about taking care of that—and that was the lesson of Prince William Sound. I’m not saying it’s a good thing . . . . One of the lessons they learned from Prince William Sound is the beaches they cleaned and the beaches they didn’t recovered at the same rate. God has given us a remarkably resilient world.


Gerry Van Kooten

Before joining the faculty in Calvin's geology, geography and environmental science (GEO) department, Gerry Van Kooten worked in Alaska for more than 20 years as a petroleum geologist for the Atlantic Richfield Company and as an independent consultant. Since joining the GEO faculty in 2002 as the WIlliam Spoelhof Teacher-Scholar-in-Residence Chair, Van Kooten has taught mineralogy and petrology, structure, and geochemistry. An expert on the geology of Alaska, he researches, writes and speaks about the oil and gas potential of that state and the environmental impact of exploration on the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.

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