Oil and Water…and Dirt

by Joe Martin on January 27, 2012

Credit: Mic Stolz

On July 26th, 2010, an Enbridge Energy Oil Pipeline leaked nearly 1,000,000 gallons of bituminous oil (that is, oil from tar sands) into a tributary of the Kalamazoo River. This was, in technical terms, very bad. The volatilizing organics caused many health problems, prompting evacuation of many residents, capping of wells and irrigation pumps, and a total ban on contact or fishing from the tributary and major portions of Kalamazoo River. (By contact, I mean any sport or activity which might potentially put you in contact with the water. All boating, swimming, synchronized swimming, or establishing underwater secret lairs is strictly forbidden.) Health suits are common against Enbridge, who has been tasked with cleaning and monitoring the affected water bodies until they are safe again for human interaction.

Nearly two years later, there is still a total ban on surface contact or fishing from the affected waters. Farmers are losing income for lack of irrigation. Yet Enbridge claims that 766,000 gallons of the 843,000 spilled have been removed. What, as it has been asked, gives? Part of the reason is that yes, 77,000 gallons is a whole lot of petroleum to still be in a river ecosystem. But that doesn’t completely answer the question. Another important reason lies in the chemical properties of oil.

That last sentence was a bit of misdirection. Petroleum isn’t a chemical; it is many hydrocarbons plus a good deal of contaminants of varying types. Even if we ignore the contaminants (like sulfur), petroleum is a hugely complex mixture with many different chemicals to consider. A considerable portion of these chemicals violate one of the basic rules of “oil” – they sink. A portion of petrochemicals are denser than water and, though they will not dissolve, will sink to the bottom where it cannot be skimmed. In the lazy river attractions now ubiquitous at water parks, this would still not be a terrible problem. You could put a hose at the bottom and start pumping. It might take some time, but the way forward is clear.

But the big difference between the lazy river and a real river is the degree to which life proliferates, the usual sunburnt habitants of a lazy river notwithstanding. The Kalamazoo River, like most rivers in Michigan, has been full of living and dying creatures for the 11,000 or so years. The muck and sediment on the bottom, even when it looks just like sand, is full of organic matter, both living and not. And many of the petroleum sinkers will complex and bind with the organic and inorganic matter which makes up the river bed. (Similarly, if the sediment is churned up, or even in regular river water, floating petroleum chemicals can be bound to the sediment and contribute a significant or even majority portion of the total sediment contamination). All of this is combined with the fact that a lot of the oil itself, not just contaminated sediment, is sitting on the river bottom, (reportedly, some 200 acres of river bottom are still covered in this petroleum). All this also have to be cleaned up.

In truth, the fact that the sediment is contaminated isn’t of great human health concern – it’s really more the 200 acres covered in submerged oil. As long as you don’t spend a lot of time eating river dirt, swimming and boating should be fine. Where concerns could come up is with eating fish. Bottom-feeding fish, such as catfish, as well as many the tiny organisms which proliferate on the river bed, consume this bound petroleum and get it all up in them. All of this is great for making poison darts out of the entrée at a Kalamazoo fish fry. (Unfortunately, that’s not a big problem. A limited fish consumption advisory has existed for the Kalamazoo River since 1970’s, due to PCB contamination. In fact, in 1990, 35 miles of the Kalamazoo river was designated a Superfund site.)

In conclusion – this river’s messed up. But suffice to say, the effects from the contamination of this river will be felt for years and years, even after the submerged oil is dredged and the waterways re-opened for human use. (It will be a long time until the fish are okay to eat. The PCB’s themselves last for long time, regardless of the petroleum contamination). I think the best we can do now is remember that an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.

Addendum – As you may have noticed, I’m kind of into dirt, and it’s what I’m trying to become good at writing about. All of my posts in this class/on this blog will be about the places where soil (even if underwater) and human health interact. But in writing about the sediment contamination from this spill, I glossed over what is likely the major cause of the health problems from this oil spill.  Many of the really scary chemicals, like the infamous BTEX (benzene, toluene, ethylbenzene, and the xylenes) chemicals, will volatilize off into the air. It is these volatile chemicals which were responsible for the horrible smell from the spill. Chemicals like benzene and toluene are known to have serious health effects, (benzene is known to cause leukemia among many other health problems, and toluene can cause neurological damage.) I wanted to mention this to establish that the health concerns and claims of those affected by the spill against are serious and legitimate. Here is an excellent article on the spill and the health effects on those exposed from Al-Jizeera.

Virginia Kendall January 27, 2012 at 3:34 pm

Wow, Joe! I think you lost me somewhere in the first or second paragraph. Your sentence, “That last sentence was a bit of misdirection” made me think you weren’t sure where you were headed. The information seemed to wander. Maybe next time decide your purpose and stick to the most relevant main points and leave off the “asides.” For example, in the first paragraph where you (in parantheses) explain what you mean by contact, it would have been simpler, I think, to say that “fishing and all sports involving contact with the water are prohibited.”
I also have an addendum: I was a teacher before I got into scientific sales, so I guess I am picky. Also, my hobby is gardening, so I, too am into soil!

PF Anderson January 27, 2012 at 3:35 pm

I remember when this happened, and looked at this image then. That helped make it easier to find! This was and remains a powerful story in this area, and I am really glad to see you giving it time and space here. Thinking of this as being written for the public, there are phrases and jargon that might make it harder for the public to get through this. In the second sentence you say “volatilizing organics”. I know what that means, but the assumption for working in health literacy is a 4th-8th grade reading level. How many typical 8th graders could explain “volatilizing organics”? I’m not saying not to use phrases like this, but to explain or define them where they are used. Here you put the explanation in the final paragraph, and I’m guessing general readers might not get that far to find it. Over all you have a very nice, accessible, colloquial writing style that I think works well for this sort of piece. There are a couple small typos, verbs that don’t agree with their object, Al-Jizeera instead of Al-Jazeera, little things. Last but not least, even Creative Commons images should have a link back to the original, and should ideally include enough information to locate the original. The great Mic Stolz image is from here: http://www.flickr.com/photos/micstolz/4847820566/ . Just for reference, the Creative Commons 2 license explaining how to cite CC2 images is here: http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-sa/2.0/deed.en . I hope that helps!

Joe Martin January 30, 2012 at 8:36 pm

Thanks for the reference on CC licenses, and thanks for reading.

Gaythia Weis January 27, 2012 at 4:09 pm

I believe that this post does a good job of highlighting an important problem; namely that we already have pipelines, and pipeline leakage issues. I think that you might have said something at the start that would have tied this to the existing Keystone pipeline controversy (which might have served as a story marketing ploy, if you had needed that to get it printed).

You have a very approachable conversational style. I do think that you may need to watch where you might be a bit too casual if your intention is to establish yourself as someone who obviously does have serious academic soil science credentials. Aim for phrasing that is amusing but not inaccurate. concerns I noted include: “This was, in technical terms, very bad.” or “As long as you don’t spend a lot of time eating river dirt”, or “the usual sunburnt habitants of a lazy river notwithstanding”. But your style is very engaging, and you would not want to lose that.

Joe Martin January 30, 2012 at 8:37 pm

Thanks for the advice. It’s a tricky balance between conversational and inaccurate, and I haven’t worked out quite yet. But I have 7 more posts here, and hopefully I’ll be more solid and confident by then. Again, thanks for reading!

Catherine OGawa January 27, 2012 at 6:03 pm

This is a very interesting and important issue to discuss, not just because of the Kalamazoo River, but because of potential contamination in other areas when the companies who control the pipelines are not concerned about protecting the environment. I do think your article wanders. It would be improved if you would make it more concise and take the time to proof read for grammatical errors.

Norm Benson January 27, 2012 at 7:34 pm

I agree about the nice conversational style. And, the problem with oil in the food chain is well done.

What I think is missing is the listing of pros and cons of oil and pros/cons of other energy solutions. There are costs and benefits to all energy systems. Wind turbines produce intermittent power and kill birds. Hydroelectric dams affect fish migration and have siltation issues. Solar arrays need vast areas and work only during sunny times. The transmission lines to take power from generation site to where it is needed also disrupts wildlife.

There is nothing in our lives that lacks risk or is problem free. Our use of technology since the invention of fire has been learning the dos and don’ts of the technology and refining our collective understanding.

So, what can we learn from this mistake? Better alarm systems for ruptures, perhaps? Increased vigilance with more frequent on-the-ground inspections perhaps?

You have outlined the problem well. Now how might it be fixed?

Joe Martin January 30, 2012 at 8:39 pm

I must say I absolutely agree. But with all the topics you suggested, really it seems as though you’re asking for an entire blog, not just a post. I’m already getting comments that my posts were too long. But I will see if I can cook up more references to answer some of the questions you’ve posed here.

Blair January 28, 2012 at 11:25 am

As someone who intends to concentrate on “dirt” it is important to ensure that you get the science part right. While the article is interesting it is a bit of a challenge to read because of a few issues which I will discuss below. My apologies at the outset, this is going to be a longish reply and a tad professorial (for which I apologize again) but my understanding is that you are seeking input from professionals as well as the lay public so here goes:

Even though you are writing for the public it is important to get your terminology right. When discussing oil and bitumens one does refer to their “chemical properties”; since oil, or “hydrocarbons”, as a group share a number of chemical characteristics (more on that later). You also need to concentrate on how you use terms since you misuse/mix-up terms a bit here. In the oil and gas industry they talk about upstream (before refining) and downstream (after it hits the refinery). In the environmental field “petroleum” is typically used for refined products. Oil in the upstream is short for “crude oil” and in the downstream is used for “motor oil”. In this case you are not talking about oil or petroleum you are talking about bitumens which are upstream products and are neither petroleum nor oil but their own sort of goat. If you are talking about unknown compounds from a spill you can use the term “petroleum hydrocarbons” or “liquid petroleum hydrocarbons” as safe catch-alls but don’t use the term petrochemicals. “Petrochemicals” is a term used to describe chemicals that are the output of the refining process. Finally the term “chemicals” is typically used to refer to distinct chemical compounds that have been naturally or synthetically purified to some extent. So you use the term correctly when you say “complex mixture with many different chemicals” but the term does not work when you use the word “portion of chemicals” (you mean percentage of chemicals). If you re-read your article with the terms in mind you will recognize the confusion your mix-and-match approach to terminology has on the informed or semi-informed reader.

On the scientific front you miss the critical chemical characteristic of hydrocarbons that will help determine how they interact with the ecosphere and explain what is happening in your article. Petroleum hydrocarbons are complex mixtures which can differ in density, viscosity and volatility and you get this across pretty well. They do share a set of critical characteristics; the most important for this article is that they are highly non-polar compounds. Water, meanwhile is a highly polar solvent. As you may remember from high school chemistry “like mixes with like”. Since hydrocarbons are non-polar this makes them hydrophobic – they hate water and do their very best to avoid or minimize contact with water whenever possible. Why is this important? Well as you indicated when these dense liquids (or semi-liquids) sink to the bottom of the river their hydrophobic nature comes into play. They can form tar balls to restrict their exposure to water or, more critically for your article, they will preferentially adsorb to sediments which have a “dry” outer coating. You almost have it with your line about complexing (but complexing is a chemical term and is only appropriate when referring to their interactions with organic chemicals) but given the nature of your article you really need to hit it on the head that these compounds are going to look for sediments or any other “dry” surfaces and bind them aggressively. Additionally they will coat the sediment and form a barrier which is virtually impenetrable to water (and thus reduces their contact with water). It is the hydrophobic nature of the chemicals which explains why they do what they do in the river and should drive that part of your article. If a reader understands the hydrophobic nature of petroleum hydrocarbons they can imagine all sorts of ways the hydrocarbons will act to avoid contact with the water.

Joe Martin January 30, 2012 at 8:46 pm

Ah thank you for clarifying the differences between upstream/downstream and the proper words for those. I am not terribly familiar with the petroleum industry, at least not beyond the average lay person.

Thanks for attaching the description of polar/non-polar. I noted that the hydrocarbons won’t mix with water, but I did not want to go into descriptions of polar/a-polar solvents and the like. As you may see above, another commenter noted that “volatile organics” may be too much for some readers. Part of the difficulty in this blog is finding who our audience is. Ostensibly, we are writing for the public, so I shouldn’t assume any science beyond high-school chemistry. With that in mind, discussing the difference between these types of solvents, and the exact manner in which the oil mixes with the sediments and/or forms tar balls is beyond the scope of the post.

But as I’ve mentioned, its all about audience, which I will workout while writing this blog. Nevertheless, I appreciate the commentary. Constructive criticism is the only way I’ll get better.

Blair January 31, 2012 at 12:56 am

I beg to differ. When writing a blog one has to accept that the audience can vary from experts to absolute lay readers. To cater to one does not mean having to abandon the other and treating your readers like grade 4 student will mean that only grade 4 students will want to read your blog. I would note that the person commenting about volatizing organics admitted that he/she understood the term but figured that a typical grade 8 student wouldn’t know the term. My wife is a grade 6/7 teacher and in British Columbia, at least, they are introduced to the concept in 6th grade science and have a basic understanding of the topic by grade 8. If you are writing to a high-school chemistry level then you have an audience that understands solvents. Put simply, if you are talking about environmental toxins and don’t trust your audience to understand the basic science of the environment then there is no point sitting down to the keyboard.

If you want to simplify the science then so be it, bring on the kitchen-counter chemistry that everyone understands. As an example, the polar/nonpolar example is as simple as thinking about cooking spaghetti. Add oil to your water and it will float on the surface, bring the water to a boil and add in the spaghetti and the oil coats the spaghetti and is no longer visible in the water. It is still there but cannot be seen because it sticks to the spaghetti. Look at the cool water after the spaghetti has been strained out and the remaining oil floats back to the surface as the water cools.

Angela January 28, 2012 at 4:54 pm

Thank you for the post! Content-wise, I found it a bit difficult to trace the argument. This, I think, may be partly due to the switches between different language registers, but also has to do with structure. I think, if you draw out more clearly what your argument is, the use of humour etc won’t be so much of a problem. As you are publishing on the internet, you can make the most of this space by putting a few more more links in, in case people want to look thing up such as chemicals, the pipeline and river in question etc. The link to the Al-Jazeera article, for instance, was super helpful! Also useful: when linking, it matters how you link. For the Battle Creek Enquirer article, for instance, it might be more obvious to the reader if you include a longer part of the sentence in the link than just the figure, e.g. ’200 acres covered in submerged oil’.
Btw I love the idea of theme posts about soil – nice choice! : D

Joe Martin January 30, 2012 at 8:50 pm

Thanks for the advice, and the encouragement. On the internet, I find that a bit of humor is an excellent way to keep attention and keep focus. I hope to be able to keep it in my posts, but obviously a clear argument and scientific communication need to be there as well. Stop by this Friday, if you have time, and please critique how I handle it this week. I will be trying to keep the humor, but refine it so it doesn’t break the argument up.

Charles January 29, 2012 at 8:12 am

I like the fact that you have a subject (dirt) you like and that you are exploring differing ways of writing about it, particularly in different ways to how everyone else writes about it. It is something I often find myself struggling with and how to write about the topic in different ways. I think this post lacks a little bit of clarity. It needs to find its central arguement and build a story around it. The facts itself are on point but possibly could stand to be presented in a simpler way.

Aniketa Shinde January 30, 2012 at 1:04 pm

Interesting post. I agree with others about the conversational tone (I enjoy it, and think you can still sound like an expert and be witty; but watch for run on sentences). There were a few cases of jargon that I do not understand and may confuse readers like me (and take away from the conversational tone): 1) The use of the word ‘complex’ as a verb: “And many of the petroleum sinkers will complex and bind . . ” Bind would have sufficed I think. 2) The use of the word volatile as a verb: “will volatilize off into the air.”. In both instances, I do not think the general public would understand those terms when used as a verb, and I have not seem them used that way in my reading. Are they more specific to organic chemistry/chemistry (neither of which are my expertise)?

Aniketa Shinde January 30, 2012 at 1:05 pm

*seen them used*

Joe Martin January 30, 2012 at 8:51 pm

A fair critique, and one I need to pay more attention to. Thanks for the advice, and I’ll be sure to check my language and make sure it is accessible, or to provide definitions if need be. Thanks for reading.

Seema Jolly January 30, 2012 at 2:07 pm

This post caught my eye because of my ties to the area. There’s just one thing I’d like to point out about this part of your piece:

“All of this is great for making poison darts out of the entrée at a Kalamazoo fish fry. (Unfortunately, that’s not a big problem. A limited fish consumption advisory has existed for the Kalamazoo River since 1970’s, due to PCB contamination. In fact, in 1990, 35 miles of the Kalamazoo river was designated a Superfund site.)”

Unless I’m misunderstanding, I think you’re suggesting that people know not to/don’t eat the fish in the river and that’s not a public health concern. But the reality is, there are still many people who continue to fish in the river (maybe not at the specific site of contamination but definitely in areas where fish would still be contaminated), not just for sport, but for food because it’s a cheap source of protein. Just want to throw out the idea that even though the government might ban or caution against a practice (e.g. eating contaminated fish), that doesn’t actually mean a practice will stop… especially when it comes to issues of poverty and food insecurity. I know that’s such a small part of your entire piece, but just as you tend to gravitate towards “dirt” (or soil), I gravitate towards food.

Joe Martin January 30, 2012 at 9:01 pm

This is an excellent point. I originally had figured most people would have known, as most of my experience with PCB/dioxin contamination has been with the Dow/Tittabawasee case, in which they have done a good job of spreading the news about the closure of the river to fishing (for consumption).

At first, I (somewhat cynically) thought that those who didn’t pay attention to the PCB contamination warnings would not have paid attention to warnings about petroleum contamination. But then I got back into public health mode and considered the opportunity of this spill to inform and organize the populace, not only against the petroleum spill but also about other public health concerns in the river. And your comment brings up other important issues surrounding contamination. Many farmers have laid claims/suit against Enbridge for the loss of income due to inability to irrigate their crops, but without an economic indicator of the value of the fish, how would those who depend on it claim damages? Its a real problem, one I unfortunately have no answer to.

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