When reporters (including NPR) need a second opinion on anything related to the environmental impacts of the Kalamazoo oil spill, they turn to Steve Hamilton. He served on the EPA’s science advisory team for the Enbridge cleanup; in fact he was the only independently-funded (non-government, non-Enbridge) scientist on the team. Additionally, one of his graduate students did work looking at the health of the macro-invertebrate food web after the oil spill, and Steve led a crew studying the re-suspension of oil from disturbed sediments. So reporters got in touch with Steve for the tar balls story, too. He pointed out that what the stories call “tar balls” are naturally occurring calcium carbonate rocks (see below for explanation), and that the reported presence of a dispersant chemical was inferred from the presence of 2-Butoxyethanol. This makes for a weak inference since this substance is commonly found in many household and industrial products, which all end up washed down the drain and eventually in our rivers (along with plenty of other substances like antibiotics, synthetic hormones, and caffeine).
Aye, there's the rub.
So, no tar balls and no Corexit (given the evidence). When the mis-quoted version appeared online, Steve faced two sticky options:
Option 1 (rock): Clarify your position to set the record is straight. But saying that there are no tar balls and that Enbridge did not use any secret chemicals (given the evidence) may be seen by some as defending the big oil company.
Option 2 (hard place): Don’t say anything, ruffle fewer feathers; but you would have to live with the face that you knew better and did not speak up. While the record shows you were using poor judgment given the evidence. This may come back to haunt you.
What's a scientist to do?
In the bigger picture, this story might make you wonder, “What is a scientists’ role in environmental controversies?” Above I suggested that by taking Option 1, Steve might be seen as defending the big oil company. Defending big oil companies is normally not something that an ecologist wakes up in the morning and hopes to do that day; but sometimes the truth ain’t pretty. At the end of the day, it’s not appeal, but truth that is the golden rule for scientists. In difficult situations that can mean putting aside both your personal views on big oil companies and your sympathies for environmentalism.
Michigan really is all it's chalked up to be
–some mollusks (and most mollusk larvae) like the chambered nautilus and oysters,
--coccolithophores–a group of super important marine phytoplankton (algae), and
--tube-building marine annelid worms.
All of these calcium carbonate skeletons piled up, eventually forming limestone, and then during the last ice age (about 10,000 years ago) the glaciers moved these sediments around–delivering them to Michigan. This is how Petoskey stones (fossil corals adored by Michigan beach combers) arrived. So in Michigan, above our bedrock, we have a thick layer (~200 feet in places) of calcium carbonate mixed with glacial sediments (sand and gravel). This limestone is the matrix for our groundwater and explains why groundwater is “hard”–a lot of calcium tends to build up on Michigander’s coffee pots. This calcium carbonate gets carried into streams and rivers, where it falls out of solution, and can build up into layered, porous, chalky (literally) deposits. Who knew those crusty rocks lying around the Kalamazoo River bed were so cool? Oceans! Corals! Glaciers! Oh my!
Below is a photo of a calcium carbonate rock found on the shore of Lake Michigan near Charlevoix. It has been turned on it’s side and the black part was sitting in the black spot to its left. The surprising black color is probably the indirect result of bacteria munching on organic material in the absence of oxygen, such as you might encounter underneath a rock. As you and I breathe out CO2, some of these bacteria breathe out hydrogen sulfide. When this gas meets reduced (ferrous) iron, iron sulfide (the black stuff) precipitates out of solution–sometimes this can be found inside water pipes. I can’t do that, can you? Microbes rule!
For more information on actual tar balls, check out this fact sheet from NOAA.
Post script: This story was linked to on the Michigan Public Radio Environment Report in relation to a story they did on the tar ball controversy.