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Cleanup of big Edwardsville oil spill continues, but pipeline concerns persist

A view of the oil slick on the surface of Cahokia Creek on March 12.
Toni Oplt
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A view of the oil slick on the surface of Cahokia Creek on March 12, one day after the spill began in Edwardsville.

An oil spill in Edwardsville unleashed an estimated 165,000 gallons of crude oil into Madison County waterways earlier this month. It’s among the largest local spills on record — but for residents near the spill site, it wasn’t clear at first that anything was wrong.

The first local observation started with a smell. On March 11, the Edwardsville Fire Department alerted residents on Facebook to “multiple calls this morning for an odor of natural gas in the air.” But it wasn’t natural gas. Instead, it was an oil spill from Marathon Petroleum, which maintains a 75-mile pipeline that runs for part of its length parallel to Cahokia Creek.

On Wednesday’s St. Louis on the Air, Edwardsville resident Toni Oplt recalled detecting the smell but not knowing what it meant: One of her neighbors believed that a work crew was tarring a road. Days later, another complained the smell was giving her headaches.

She sees the spill as a much-needed warning.

032322_DW_ToniOplt.JPG
Danny Wicentowski
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St. Louis Public Radio
Edwardsville resident Toni Oplt is an environmental activist, a member of the Sierra Club and serves as the chairperson for the Metro East Green Alliance.

“I think this is a wake-up call for us,” Oplt said. “We always think of natural disasters as being far away, until they're with us.”

Oplt is an environmental activist, a member of the Sierra Club and chairperson for the Metro East Green Alliance. She argues Edwardsville could have done more to alert residents to the environmental disaster taking place inside its borders. Although the city did share the alert and updates from its Fire Department to its main Facebook group, officials didn’t reach out to those directly affected. Said Oplt, “For people like myself, for community members, it becomes a long series of questions that don't get answered.”

Cahokia Creek and the bike trail alongside it are frequented by nature lovers and young people during the warmer months, Oplt said. She’s concerned about health effects. On March 12, one day after the spill was first reported, Oplt snapped a photo from the trail where it passes over the creek — the picture shows a sheen of oil sliding across the water’s surface.

In a statement to St. Louis on the Air, Marathon Petroleum said that its crews are continuing to work along the area of the spill near the Cahokia Creek. The statement added that the spill is being “monitored 24 hours a day for impacted wildlife and audible deterrent is being used to keep any animals from entering the affected area.” In an earlier statement, the company claimed it had already recovered between 2,200 and 3,000 barrels of oil that had spilled from the pipeline, KMOV reported.

Hannah Flath, communications coordinator for Sierra Club Illinois, cautioned that Marathon’s recent actions appear limited to the short-term problems raised by the spill.

“The Metro East area, and really Illinois more broadly, is unfortunately at risk for these incidents because of the network of pipelines underneath the ground,” she said. “We are of course at the center of the country, which makes us home to more miles of fossil fuel pipelines and most other states, putting our communities at risk.”

Listen: Edwardsville oil clean up continues

On Monday, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch reported on “the web of pipelines that crisscross the St. Louis region” — and the prevalence of oil spills. Reporters Bryce Gray and Janelle O’Dea revealed the numbers behind the incidents: 432 combined spills in Missouri and Illinois since 2020, 72 resulting in spills of 1,000 gallons or more; 36 spills exceeded 10,000 gallons, while 13 — not including the recent Edwardsville spill — exceeded 100,000 gallons.

Flath said those numbers raise a bigger issue about the pipelines running beneath our feet. It’s not just about keeping them well-maintained and less likely to spill, she said, “but also to ultimately do whatever we can to end our reliance on these pipelines.”

Oplt agrees.

“Down the road, we need to think about not just this spill,” Oplt said. “We need to think about the next one.”

In the meantime, Illinois Attorney General Kwame Raoul is also adding pressure. On March 18, his office filed suit against Marathon Pipe Line. Raoul’s announcement of the suit stated that the spill killed at least 10 animals.

“Marathon’s significant oil spill has created a public health risk by exposing the community to heavy crude oil,” Raoul said in a statement. “I am committed to ensuring that Marathon is held accountable for the damage it has already done and preventing it from causing further harm to the public’s health and the environment.”

St. Louis on the Air” brings you the stories of St. Louis and the people who live, work and create in our region. The show is hosted by Sarah Fenske and produced by Emily Woodbury, Kayla Drake, Danny Wicentowski and Alex Heuer. Jane Mather-Glass is our production assistant. The audio engineer is Aaron Doerr.

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Danny Wicentowski is a producer for "St. Louis on the Air."

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