Niles resident helps with cleanup

Published 3:05 am Friday, October 29, 2010

Niles resident Scott Crouch, pictured in front of a helicopter at the Kalamazoo River cleanup site, was involved with cleaning up the oil spill at the river for nearly three months. (Photo submitted)

Niles resident Scott Crouch, pictured in front of a helicopter at the Kalamazoo River cleanup site, was involved with cleaning up the oil spill at the river for nearly three months. (Photo submitted)

A renaissance man, a lifelong learner or a go-getter are all words that can describe Scott Crouch.

No matter what you call him, the Niles resident gets things done.

Whether it’s refurbishing the dragon boats the city of Niles uses during Riverfest, building the sand volleyball court downtown or fighting a fire with the Niles Fire Department, Crouch loves getting involved in projects.

When he agreed to work on the dragon boats and build the sand volleyball court, he had no experience but found a way to get it done.

So in July when he received a series of panicked text messages from a friend who works for an environmental company asking him to help with the cleanup of the oil spill on the Kalamazoo River, it was no surprise how he responded.

“I had to help.”

An oil pipeline owned by Enbridge Liquid Pipelines in Marshall, Mich. sprung a leak in late July and spilled more than 800,000 gallons of oil into about a 30-mile stretch of the Kalamazoo River.

Just days after the spill, Crouch agreed to help with the environmental group as a boat navigator, since he is very familiar with the river as an avid boater and angler.

“I was able to read the river, because I fish a lot,” he said. “I know where the stagnant water is and where the eddies are.”

But before he knew it, he found himself working as a supervisor of about 40 workers and was entrenched in a battle to “save Lake Michigan” — a lake into which the river flows.

“I didn’t know what I was getting myself into at all,” the former City of Niles firefighter said. “I didn’t pack a bag or anything. I just made a drive to Marshall.”

What began as a day trip turned into nearly three months of 12- to 14-hour work days on the river.

Crouch said he was able to draw from his past experiences in Niles to help on the project.

“I took the knowledge I received over the years in the fire department and from building dragon boats to building the sand volleyball courts. I kind of took it and put it all together,” he said.

Crouch said it was “one adventure after another” working on the project. One day he would be shoveling oil-soaked mud, while the next day he would be helping set up oil containment boom, loading helicopters or helping clean up the river on an airboat.

“It was almost like being in the military going in to attack and chasing all that oil,” he said.

Crouch was also able to advise officials on the status of the project using a program called Motion X GPS on his iPad.

“They could know what island we’re working on, what we’ve done and what equipment we need,” he said.

When he first got there, he was shocked by the scene. He could smell the oil from miles away on his drive to Marshall.

“It just hit you. And it was strong,” Crouch said of the smell.

The river and its banks coated in black oil was tough to see, said Crouch. There were hundreds of trucks, excavators and Bobcat compact tractors at the scene.

“I was so sad by what I saw,” he said.

Crouch said at that moment he knew he had to help because the Kalamazoo River reminds him of the St. Joseph.

“Knowing that it could happen to the river I love, the community that I love, it meant so much to me,” he said.

Crouch even said the Kalamazoo oil spill is worse than the one in the gulf.

“It’s because the Great Lakes are the largest fresh water source,” he said. “If that got contaminated, that doesn’t affect just Michigan, Wisconsin, Illinois and Indiana. It affects the world.”

Hundreds of environmental groups and thousands of workers, under close watch of the Environmental Protection Agency, the Department of National Resources and Environment and other organizations, have teamed up on the project.

Crouch said he was impressed by the team effort.

And now with the river running clear and much of the area clean, he is proud of how much has been accomplished. But he said there is still a lot more work to be done.

And true to his character, he wants to stay involved with the cleanup and see the job get done.