Friday, July 30, 2010

Scenes from the Michigan Oil Spill

I've often wondered how I would react to covering a disaster. Yes, I'm having fun shooting events, places, people in Michigan. I absolutely love it. I live for it. But, as I once told a friend, "Real photojournalists have to shoot icky things, like car crashes and Republicans and stuff". I'll never forget the time I met one of the Freep photogs at a political event. It was fun to watch her work, listening and learning about the craft. A few short days after that event though, she was shooting the wreck where those four kids tried to beat the train in Detroit. They didn't make it. It gave me chills thinking about it.

So, I shied away from doing this at first, afraid of the horror I would see, sensitive little twit that I am. This oil spill, being so close to home though, I had to go. I wanted to see firsthand. And I'm glad that I did. Sometimes, I think that we see so many disasters on the TV and the internet that we become desensitized to it all; it becomes commonplace, and somehow still far away, if it doesn't hit your hometown. To be present for history like this though, it becomes way too real. And you understand why some journalists end up with PTSD.

Planning to work my way up the Kalamazoo River from the west, the first stop I made was in Plainwell. I knew the oil hasn't traveled that far of course, but I wanted a comparison, a point of reference. The first thing I noticed was the height and the speed of the river - it had overflown the boardwalk, and it was moving fast. And this was my first contact with another fellow traveler, out to look at the damage. On the way back to the car, a gentleman pulled up next to me and asked, "Is it here yet?"

No. It wasn't. We talked for a while, reliving the time line of events and covering the usual questions that ranged from grief, disbelief, anger, frustration, and sorrow. This scene would be repeated at every. single. stop. I made during the day. I talked with quite a few people who were in a vague state of shock, trying to make sense of it all.

Kalamazoo was a road construction nightmare, so I moved on as quickly as I could. Next stop was Galesburg, right before Morrow Lake, off I-94. Ran into a biologist as I parked the car; he is currently living in Chicago but had grown up in the area, and still has friends and family here. He came home as soon as he heard about the spill. He had traveled the road all the up to Marshall, showed me some shots he had taken, and gave me some tips as to where to go. Very somber conversation. I wasn't quite sure where I was at that point, and he explained that this spot was practically the opening of Morrow Lake - and that the oil was here. Not thick, certainly not as bad as it was upstream, but definitely here.

And it was. First thing you notice is the smell. Heavy, industrial, you recognize it right away. It just hangs in the air. Walking down to the river, past the warning signs, it gets stronger. At this spot on the river it didn't seem so bad - but the oil was noticeable; along the edges and in the rocks and vegetation, a slight rainbow sheen was present. And every once in a while, you would see more floating in the river, moving fast toward Morrow Lake. In Augusta, about the same thing. There really isn't much to Augusta, so I moved on.

Battle Creek was a different story. Standing on the Helmer Rd. Bridge (which is actually in Springfield,) there were large clouds of sheen moving down the river. Rainbow swirls; growing and stopping and growing again. And this was the first spot I noticed blobs of oil, dark brown clumps traveling in lighter brown pools, as it spreads out in the water. The oil on the vegetation was thick, black, a good six inches or so covering everything that was remotely close to the flowing river. The odor is the air was very heavy. It was there that I realized how awful this stuff really is - I don't think people can appreciate it until you see and smell it in a 360 setting. It brings tears.

This scene was downriver from two sets on booms and skimmers in the immediate area. Jackson St., which runs along the river on the north side, was closed. Numerous trucks lined the road as the cleanup crews had set-up shop there, and to their credit there were a lot of workers present. They were stringing more boom, traveling in boats up and down the river, sampling the water, doing whatever it is they do...

Moved on, up and around the closed section and then back down, ran into another set of guys doing the same thing a little further east. Still in Battle Creek at this point - and the oil along the sides of the river was thicker, higher up on the vegetation. Chatted with some more residents of the area, and always the same question, "Why didn't they stop it sooner? How come they didn't know it was happening?" No answer to that. Not yet anyway.

On to Marshall, and in particular, the Ceresco area. The place where they are currently evacuating people because the air is so bad - and it is. It is noxious. The area around the 11 Mile Rd. bridge really told the story; the smell was horrible, and thick, black oil clung to the trees and rocks along the river. Big brown blobs were still moving along at a very rapid pace. Most of the shots of thick oil in the slideshow came from here. It was hard to shoot, with the sun reflecting the trees, but anywhere you see a darker color in the water - that was oil. And there was a lot of it. Apparently it was nothing like it was the first few days though; residents of the area, standing and chatting with all us lookie-lous, were telling us it was sooo much better than it was. Oh man.

12 Mile Rd. was closed at Ceresco Dam, as more of the cleanup crew was present. Tanker trucks, cops, more workers, guys with clipboards... it was quite the gathering. Thunderous water was still spilling over the dam, and with it, more brown clumps could be seen. The area below the dam was thick with black oil. And the ever-present smell was very heavy at this point - and it was here that I started getting a headache and nausea. Maybe it was the heat of the day, the dehydration setting in, the gawd-awful Micky D's for lunch, the churning emotions at observing all of this... or maybe it was the benzene in the air. Who knows. It would stick with me until my head hit the pillow, that smell still in my nose, and I'm still not feeling all that hot this morning.

I traveled further into Marshall after that. Passed a bunch of big tanker trucks coming out of the area, I'm hoping these are the recipients of the estimated half million gallons of oil they have already pulled out of the river. Many roads that led to the water in the south of town were barricaded, workers and trucks driving in and out, so I decided not to mess with it anymore, and started to make my way back. I wanted to check out Morrow Lake and spots beyond.

It was getting late, the sun sinking on the horizon. Didn't see or smell anything at the lake right offhand, but it was so hard to tell. After the dam at Ceresco, I felt like I was covered in the stuff. Stopped at a little park in Comstock, this is beyond the Morrow Dam, and a couple of teenagers who lived there told me that the smell had been really bad in the morning, but the wind had now shifted. We talked for a bit, and I mentioned the sheen on the water that I had seen, especially the clouds in Battle Creek.

"What's sheen?", the older kid asked me. He continued on. "I don't know what that is, all I know is I saw this rainbow stuff swirling on the top of the water in the park this morning. The EPA guys told us that they were coming to use this boat launch, and that they would be here soon to close the park." Channel 3 from Kalamazoo showed up to interview this guy. Whether they used the footage or not, or whether anyone believes him or not, I don't know. They can debate the spread of this all they want, he knows what he saw, he was very sincere about it, troubled look of frustration on his face.

All he wanted to do was help with the animals. His friend did as well. The park was filled with ducks and geese, still clean at this point, waiting for us to commence with the feeding already. I think they will be safe. Morrow Lake should catch anything that is still coming, anything that happens to make it through the increasing booms and barricades up river. But from that point, all the way back to Marshall, someone has a helluva mess to clean up.

I noted with disgusted amusement this morning one story that claims that the governor may have "over-reacted" to this disaster. Well, seems to me that once she started screaming her fool head off, they got on the ball and sent more help in. May have prevented even more damage from being done, as earlier reports and stock market sites this week seemed to be more concerned about when the pipeline would re-open than they were the environmental destruction and loss to the area. So, if she over-reacted, good for her. I wish she had lit the damn river on fire to get their attention. Maybe it was the shock of seeing this first-hand, because making it stop, now!, is your initial gut reaction when you see it up close and personal, or, maybe it was memories of Kathleen Blanco awakened. Hard to say. But kudos to her, and to Congressman Schauer as well, for yelling as loud as they possibly could about this.

Keep it up. There is a whole lot of cleaning up that needs to be done here. Don't let these guys slack off for one minute.

And yeah, I can shoot disasters. I'd just rather not have to, so why don't we keep a close eye on potential danger from now on, ok? Accidents will happen to be sure, but one ounce of prevention is worth a pound of the cure as we are finding out, and I'd much rather show y'all the beautiful scenery of this state, instead of shots of its destruction. Thanks in advance.