Environment Picture

Steve Hamilton: Spearheading a river’s recovery with sound science

Steve Hamilton was on his way to a meeting in East Lansing in 2010 when he heard about the oil spill.

A pipeline owned by Canadian energy giant Enbridge had gushed more than a million gallons of heavy crude into a Kalamazoo River tributary. As details emerged, the startling reality became clear: The river Hamilton loves had just suffered the worst inland oil spill in U.S. history.

“We were all astounded because we didn’t know there was a pipeline there,” he says. “The last thing we thought would happen in the Kalamazoo was an oil spill.”

Hamilton—a Michigan State University ecologist and volunteer president of the Kalamazoo River Watershed Council (KRWC)—was a fixture on the scene in the weeks that followed. The Environmental Protection Agency tapped his expertise to help guide cleanup operations. When local and national journalists reporting on the spill were stymied by bureaucracy at the EPA and Enbridge, they called on him as an independent scientist to explain the impact. And he shared insights and helped answer questions at public gatherings where residents struggled to understand the disaster unfolding in their backyards.

Colleagues say Hamilton’s level-headedness, his firm belief in science-based decision-making and his ability to explain complex science to the public made him an invaluable community asset in the wake of the spill.

It’s for those same qualities—along with his generous volunteerism as an ambassador for the Kalamazoo—that the Michigan Environmental Council chose Hamilton as the 2014 recipient of the Petoskey Prize for Environmental Leadership.

“Everybody’s ‘dream scientist’ is one who takes the skills and knowledge acquired in academe and transforms them into real world problem solving,” wrote Hamilton’s colleagues at the Kalamazoo Environmental Council in a letter nominating him for the prize. “Steve has done precisely that across a broad range of environmental issues.”

Credibility opens doors
By training and by nature, Hamilton is a river guy. He’s studied river ecology, river hydrology, river geomorphology, both in the U.S. and abroad. Unlike many scientists, he has no qualms about using his expertise to influence public policy and environmental debates.

“You have to walk a fine line to maintain your scientific credibility, but I do think there’s a responsibility to speak out when it’s an area of our expertise,” he says. “I’m not shy about that.”

Hamilton’s scientific credibility, combined with the local knowledge he’s built during two decades living and exploring in the Kalamazoo River watershed, made him the ideal person to lead KRWC.

And as its own members admit, the pre-Hamilton KRWC needed the help. A reputation for combativeness had left the group on the sidelines of important discussions about restoring the Kalamazoo. When Hamilton transitioned from board member to president in 2006, he worked to reconnect with local allies and insisted the group’s positions be defensible with sound science.

“That has opened a lot of doors,” Hamilton says. “I think we’re more effective now. Agencies come to KRWC now.”

Indeed, his leadership “has a large role in making the Kalamazoo River Watershed Council an organization that is consistently valued by both state and federal government agencies as a strong partner for conservation in the area,” wrote Lisa Williams, environmental contaminants branch chief for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, in a letter supporting Hamilton’s nomination.

With Hamilton at the helm KRWC also has broadened the scope of its work. Formerly focused solely on legacy pollution issues in the lower Kalamazoo, the group now takes a more comprehensive approach. For example, they’ve created a watershed management plan, spearheaded initiatives to reduce phosphorus pollution and led “Kanoe the Kazoo” outings on which more than 3,000 area residents have learned about the watershed’s ecology and enjoyed it as a recreational resource.

That last point is particularly important to Hamilton, who says getting people on the Kalamazoo and repairing its damaged reputation is a top priority.

“The river has suffered a black eye in public opinion” following the oil spill, he says. “We’ve got to work to mend that stigma that’s been reawakened in people’s minds.”

A river of contrasts
The oil spill covered about 40 miles of the Kalamazoo with diluted bitumen pumped in from the Canadian tar sands. The heavy sludge sank to the river bottom, complicating cleanup efforts. Four years and more than $1 billion later, Enbridge still hasn’t removed all of it.

A spill of that magnitude in a freshwater system was without precedent. Serving on three EPA-convened advisory boards, Hamilton has volunteered hundreds of hours to help figure out what research should be done, collect existing data and develop cleanup plans. Samples collected by one of his graduate students provided the chemical fingerprinting needed to show beyond doubt that the oil—and responsibility for removing it—belonged to Enbridge.

Hamilton has never asked for or been given compensation for his efforts, insisting on independence.

Before the oil spill, the Kalamazoo was already infamous for the heavy PCB pollution that put the river on the EPA’s list of Superfund sites. Hamilton said the long cleanup process has seen significant progress in the past few years, including the 2013 completion of PCB removal from Portage Creek. The threat of flushing polluted sediment downstream had long prevented the removal of old, useless dams on the Kalamazoo, but enough was cleaned up to allow a 2009 dam removal. Two other removals are likely in the next five years, yielding significant ecosystem benefits, Hamilton said.

“In some ways the Kalamazoo is one of the most polluted rivers in America, but it also has some of the best habitat for plants and animals,” he says. “It’s a very resilient ecosystem. It’s a river of contrasts.”

Still exploring southwest Michigan
Hamilton, 55, grew up in Oakland County and attended Michigan Tech as an undergraduate. He then headed west to earn a master’s degree at University of Colorado Boulder and a doctorate at the University of California, Santa Barbara.

He returned home to teach at Michigan State in 1995, settling at the university’s W.K. Kellogg Biological Station, a quiet enclave on Gull Lake, not far from Battle Creek and Kalamazoo, where researchers conduct long-term experiments in biology, agriculture and other fields.

His wife, Suzanne Sippel, is a database manager at the station. They live a few miles away with their 16-year-old son, Lucas.

Hamilton spends a lot of time exploring his rural region, but after nearly two decades of biking country roads, running local trails and paddling his inflatable kayak all over the watershed, he said he’s only begun to scratch its surface.

“This part of Michigan is pretty interesting,” he says. “It’s hilly and speckled with lakes and wetlands. There’s a lot to do here in southwest Michigan, so it’s hard to get motivated to go up north.”

Those lakes and wetlands—and the big, rebounding river they feed—have been good to Hamilton, and he works tirelessly to repay them.

As Kay Gross, director of the station, wrote in a letter supporting his nomination, “though all MSU faculty have a commitment to outreach and serving their local communities, few have done so at the level Steve has.”
-Andy McGlashen
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