Right now, the midwest’s largest oil spill in history is flowing through my backyard. The pipeline, taking oil from Indiana to Canada, burst sometime Sunday or Monday this past week (3-4 days ago), sending 840,000 barrels of oil into a creek, that flows to the Kalamazoo River, that flows to Lake Michigan. As of this writing, the oil has been spotted just past at a nearby dam, right outside of Kalamazoo, where state workers are doing their best to clean it up before it fills my town and heads to the lake.

On the heels of the disaster in the Gulf, the community is hyper angry and action-oriented. Their questions are these:

1. Do we have the resources to stop the spill before it reaches the Great Lakes?

2. How much oil are we talking about here?


3. How in the hell did this happen?

Due to my disposition, I immediately saw these as the evaluation questions. In fact, these seem to be the most common evaluation questions of all time: What was the impact? To what extent? and What was the cause?

In the case here,

1. Yes, we have tons of resources. The oil spill hotline has turned down volunteers, saying they have had an overwhelming number of calls. We can stop this thing, if they’ll let us (outcome). But the leader of the outcome is the very company that owns the pipeline and, like BP, they are keeping others at bay (unexpected consequence).

2. New estimates from the EPA raise the total to 1 million gallons (output). Enough to fill a football field two feet deep and then a lot more. This illustrative description comes courtesy of the Freep and demonstrates another skill needed by evaluators – to describe the extent of the impact in such a way that it is understandable to a wide audience.

Freep photographer Andre J. Jackson also snapped this picture, a necessary visual of the impact at the riverside:

Canada Geese covered in oil sit along the Kalamazoo River after a pipeline ruptured in Marshall on Tuesday.   (ANDRE J. JACKSON/Detroit Free Press)

3. The cause? Enbridge Energy, whose PR-controlled Wikipedia page puts the spill at 19,500 barrels (or 20% 2% of the EPA’s estimate). Well, they are the guilty party, maybe not the cause per se. The cause is really their shoddy internal evaluation. According to the aforementioned wiki page, they have had 610 spills in the last 12 years. 610! If that sort of error rate was allowed in schools or social service organizations, they’d be run out of town. No good internal quality control can allow an average of 51 spills per year.

Look, I don’t pretend to know how to evaluate disaster response. That’s my friend, Liesel Ritchie. But what I do know is that cause-probing is clearly a natural phenomenon because there are a lot of Kalamazooans who want to hold Enbridge’s feet to the fire. And I know that there is a time when one should go native – I’ll see you at the river.

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