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Five Years After Oil Spill, Public Gets First Look At Oak Glen Nature Preserve

Five years after an oil spill devastated Oak Glen Nature Preserve in Colerain Township, Great Parks of Hamilton County is now allowing limited public access. WVXU's Tana Weingartner has followed this story since the spill was discovered. She recently went back to find out what the public will learn during an off-trail hike this Saturday.

In the five years I've been visiting Oak Glen Nature Preserve, I've heard a lot things - bulldozers, backhoes, high-pressure water hoses, the scrape of rakes on rock - but this visit is different.

"That's a Baltimore oriole singing," observes Bret Henninger, chief of conservation and parks with Great Parks of Hamilton County. It's early May and I'm hiking along a once oil-contaminated stream bed with Henninger and Nature Interpreter Will Buelsing.

Will Buelsing: "We've just seen about four goldfinches. Two popped over to our left and then two went to our right."

Tana Weingartner: "What, if anything, does that tell us?"

WB: "Realistically, not a whole lot. Goldfinches are pretty sturdy birds as far as where they're able to live, but just the fact that wildlife is moving back in here and they're stable ... and the pairs would indicate that there's some nesting and breeding going on here. The fact that life is returning to this area is a really good sign in general."

TW: "This is the first time, I think, in the five years I've been coming out here I've seen this much wildlife. I'm seeing birds, butterflies, we're hearing at least two different kinds of frogs." (To Henninger) "How does that make you feel?'

Bret Henninger: "I similarly feel like we're gradually starting to see things come back."

Credit Tana Weingartner / WVXU
A dam was built in 2014 to contain the oil during clean up. It is gone now, but these images show how the landscape has changed from 2014 (left) to 2018 (middle) and the present, 2019 (right).

Henninger has been on the project since remediation began. In March 2014, neighbors smelled diesel and alerted authorities. A pipeline run by a Sunoco subsidiary had burst, sending 20,000 gallons of crude oil cascading down a stream bed, heading for the Great Miami River.

It was stopped; the pipeline fixed, but the damage was done. What should be a foot-wide creek is meters across because of the cleaning process, but fomerly missing aquatic and animal life are slowly returning.

Credit Tana Weingartner / WVXU
Animal tracks were few and far between following the spill. Now there are signs - like this heron or wild turkey track - that life is slowly returning.

As we hike beside the creek, I find myself doing something I've never really needed to do at Oak Glen: watching my step for small animals or their tracks. We spy heron, raccoon, deer, and after some discussion, a large turkey. A small frog hops across our path.

Henninger says all that's left is getting rid of the remaining invasive plants.

"While responding to the oil spill, there were a lot of invasive species, invasive plants brought in. We're standing in front of a grassland that has had a lot of work done to remove invasive plants like Tree of Heaven and garlic mustard and several others," Henninger explains, gesturing to a wide field filled with shin-high grasses.

Credit Tana Weingartner / WVXU
This grassland was overrun with invasive plants following the clean up. It is slowly regaining its natural form.

This grassland was once home to lark sparrows. They went missing in the spill's aftermath. Great Parks recently bought an adjacent property where the rare bird has been spotted, but so far it hasn't returned to Oak Glen.

"We'll just keep listening as they go into the breeding season, we should be able to hear lark sparrows if they're here," Henninger says. "That's something that our staff will keep an eye on."

The preserve was never truly open to the public. It had no hiking trails or parking, and it remains closed. However, Great Parks will bring day campers here this summer to learn about nature and do experiments. Buelsing is leading a hike Saturday where participants can see the rupture site and how much the preserve has changed.

"We really want to invite people out to see where we're at now and get a look of where did it happen, how did it happen, and then where have we come since that time," Buelsing explains. "We want people to learn the story of Oak Glen Nature Preserve."

Credit Tana Weingartner / WVXU
Nature Interpreter Will Buelsing will lead the hike on Saturday, May 25, 2019.

Water gurgles down the stream thanks to plenty of spring showers. Visitors won't be sloshing in the creek, but we traversed it carefully, looking for signs of life.

Henninger spies a tadpole, then turns a rock to find a caddisfly larva.

"This is [a species] that's intolerant of pollutants, so that's a good sign," he says. "We're not finding them in huge abundance - you should find them all over - but it's a really positive step."

TW: "To me it feels starkly different. Am I being overly excited about the plant and wildlife we're finding?"

WB: "No, certainly not. I don't think there's too much overexcitement that can come after an impact of this level. I was not here five years ago when the spill happened, but just a few months ago when I was out here, this is more than I saw at that point. As spring is truly starting to come into full effect and it's getting warmer and things are starting to bloom more, life has just exploded here at Oak Glen and that's fantastic to see."

Credit Tana Weingartner / WVXU
The off-trail hike will take visitors to the site of the pipeline rupture, seen here in 2014 during the clean-up and in 2019 from the opposite side of the valley.

There are limited spots for the May 25 off-trail hike at Oak Glen. You can sign up online or by calling Great Parks at 513-521-PARK (7275). The hike begins at 11 a.m. and lasts through 1:30 p.m. Visitors should be prepared for strenuous and hilly off-trail hiking.