NO PLANET B: The Komatsu oil spill into the Menomonee River: A Briefing

This is a column part of a monthly series called “No Planet B” written by Sustainability & Energy Management Coordinator Chelsea Malacara and her sustainability interns. This series aims to provide insight on how we can begin to think and make sustainable choices on campus for a better future. 

Lake Michigan’s primary tributaries (Kinnickinnic River, Menomonee River, Milwaukee River) have a critical role in Milwaukee’s economy and ecosystem. The rivers are host to a diverse population of native fish, pollinators, waterfowl, birds and mammals. With dozens of businesses utilizing the rivers for their operations, it is important that there is close monitoring of the river’s health and regulations are enforced to ensure accountability.

When industrial polluting accidents occur, it can lead to significant ecosystem disruption. Accumulated pollutants can damage flora, fauna, and humans, in addition to traveling downstream and expanding further into the world, including into Lake Michigan.

Four hundred gallons of used oil spilled down a storm sewage drain at the Komatsu manufacturing facility and emptied out into the Menomonee and Milwaukee rivers Dec. 3, 2021. The spill was first noticed when an oily sheen was spotted in both rivers.

According to Komatsu’s official media statement, the used oil that spilled was produced from their manufacturing process and contained “a combination of spent cutting, hydraulic and lubrication oils.” In a large river, 400 gallons of oil may not seem significant. Yet, consider this — the average automobile gas tank takes around 14.5 gallons of gas, 400 gallons, and can fill about 27.5 cars! Komatsu originally believed that this was a small spill but later realized how large it truly was.

It is suspected that there will be long-term impacts beyond the watershed. Among the many animals that encountered the oil, two birds have been cared for by the Wisconsin Humane Society, one being a snowy owl, and the other a Canadian goose. Both birds were in distress and covered in oil near the Menomonee River.

Jennifer Bolger Breceda with the Milwaukee Riverkeeper spoke to Fox 6 News Milwaukee on the impacts that will transpire from the oil that was not recovered. “The oil will sink to the bottom, and it will impact fish and macroinvertebrates, the little critters on the bottom of the river that the fish eat just survive and the plants need to grow.”

An ecosystem is a continuous, interconnected system that depends on all parts to function and thrive. When these accidents with pollutants happen, ecosystems can dramatically change altering the environment for years.

In their media statement, Komatsu mentioned that they are working closely with the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources as they clean up the oil. Boat crews are out on the waterways to vacuum up the oil and placingabsorbent material incorporated into the boom that will clean up the contaminated stormwater outfall. Although cleanup began immediately, weather and time are working against the crews. Young advocates from Ace Pius XI Action Team organized a protest at City Hall Dec. 19, 2021, to hold Komatsu accountable and demand more urgency and action in their prevention and cleanup.

While browsing the Milwaukee Riverkeeper’s posts on the spill cleanup, there were a variety of comments calling for more consequences for Komatsu to endure, along with recommendations for Komatsu to develop spill prevention plans and have mitigation equipment.

If you want to help the river and those working on cleanup, be on the lookout for product deposits and animals that are in trouble near the river. If you see anything concerning, you can contact Milwaukee Riverkeeper through their pollution reporting page. To stay up to date on the process and City’s Public Health & Safety Committee meeting information, follow @mkeriverkeeper.

This story was written by Sarah Knott. She is a sustainability intern for Chelsea Malacara, the Sustainability & Energy Management Coordinator for Marquette University. She is not a staff member for the Wire. She can be reached at sarah.knott@marquette.edu