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Great Lakes Article:

Rivers' polluted past resurfaces
By Hugh McDiarmid Jr.
Detroit Free Press
04/05/04



Much of the estimated 255,000 gallons from the 2002 spill is believed to have been swept downstream by the Detroit River current and to have disappeared into Lake Erie.

Some oil-soaked shoreline vegetation was cut and removed from Lake Erie Metropark. Ten birds and two turtles died.

Coast Guard contractors using booms -- floating sausage-shaped buoys that contain and absorb contaminants -- kept oil from soiling environmentally sensitive areas like Humbug Marsh and the Pointe Mouillee marsh.

Divers found no oil on the bottom of Lake Erie, near the mouth of the Detroit River.

No studies are planned to assess potential long-term effects.

"But it doesn't just go away," said Sally Petrella, coordinator with the Friends of the Rouge, a Dearborn Heights-based nonprofit dedicated to protecting the river. "It gets into the soil and sand on the banks, and can cause problems for microorganisms" at the bottom of the food chain, she said.

The spill was an ominous reminder of a past when there were no laws against spewing waste oil, chemicals and untreated sewage into the Rouge and Detroit rivers.

Apathy about the oil- and sewage-matted rivers changed in 1948, when angry Downriver sportsmen dumped truckloads of their oil-soaked duck carcasses on the lawn of the state Capitol in protest.

The Rouge River also gained unwanted national notoriety in the late 1960s, when its polluted surface caught fire, writes John Hartig, Detroit River navigator, in his new book "Honoring our Detroit River." Laws since then have dramatically reduced oil discharges. Today, trace amounts of oil measured in parts per million are allowed in some industry discharges.

Still, the failure to find the culprit sends a poor message, said Petrella.

"When you don't prosecute the big polluters, it makes it more acceptable for people to dump their own oil into drains," she said. "They think, 'Well, it must not be that bad a thing.' But of course it is."

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