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Long road ahead to restore Oak Glen Nature Preserve following oil spill

It was late evening on March 17 when neighbors reported smelling diesel near the Oak Glen Nature Preserve in Colerain Township. An underground pipeline run by a Sunoco subsidiary had ruptured and oil was oozing down a hillside creek, collecting in a pond and threatening to seep into the Great Miami River.

Credit Tana Weingartner / WVXU
Rings of oil still encircle trees in the marshy pond.

A month later, you can still see oil ringing trees like high-water marks.

Great Parks of Hamilton County spokeswoman Jennifer Sivak says, "you can still smell the oil."

She's right, you can still smell it at different points along the stream as you hike up the hill to the break point.

WVXU's Tana Weingartner traversed the spill line with Sivak and Stewardship Manager Bob Mason.

Water is being pumped down the creek to flush out the oil. Crews use industrial hoses and rakes to unearth it and push it downstream where it's collected and hauled away.

Credit Tana Weingartner / WVXU
Crews use rakes and a high-powered water hose to unearth oil and send it downstream for collection.

Mason explains, "They turn over the rock because much of the oil is trapped underneath. So just to go through and spray, the only thing they'd do is just get the very tops. This way they're turning them and releasing any oil underneath and then flushing."

When the crew in white hazmat suits reaches the bottom, they'll start over again at the top of the hill and repeat until the oil is gone.

Mason says remediation could last several more weeks and restoration could last years. Standing at the top of the hill gazing down on the exposed pipeline hovering over the stream of oily rocks, Mason takes a deep sigh and reflects on how he's feeling.

"It's hard to...," he trails off. "Well, it's better. It's much better than it was four weeks ago but you can look out there and look at all the black (oil) that's still out there. It's a long way to go."

"I try not to get emotional now," he laughs before adding somberly, "It's been a tough four weeks."

Credit Tana Weingartner / WVXU
The pipeline's path cuts a deep slash through the previously untouched preserve.

Sivak describes the scene before her as heartbreaking.

"It's like a whole chunk of forest is gone. It's like somebody just plowed right through it. So you see this beautiful forest here (on the right) and this beautiful forest here (on the left) and then just mud and fence and machinery and a pipe and... and oil."

Credit Tana Weingartner / WVXU
A trailer serves as a cleaning station for removing oil from found animals and tracking their progress. Some have been returned to the wild; others are being held in captivity until it's safe to return them to the preserve.

Nearly 20,000 gallons of oil have been collected and 32 animals, mostly salamanders, frogs and crayfish have died. Many more have been cleaned and either released or are being held at Dayton's Boonshoft Museum until it's safe to return them to the preserve. Sivak says it could be another year or two before the full impact on wildlife and plant life is known.

"Great Parks goal is to restore Oak Glen, as best as we can, to what is was or even better but it's going to take a lot of time," she says.

Crews will soon begin installing a permanent replacement pipe along the break area. Officials speculate the rupture was caused by the pipeline rubbing against shale underneath it.

Sunoco Logistics is funding the clean up but won't comment on the cost.

Tana Weingartner earned a bachelor's degree in communication from the University of Cincinnati and a master's degree in mass communication from Miami University. Prior to joining Cincinnati Public Radio, she served as news and public affairs producer with WMUB-FM. Ms. Weingartner has earned numerous awards for her reporting, including several Best Reporter awards from the Associated Press and the Ohio Society of Professional Journalists, and a regional Murrow Award. She enjoys snow skiing, soccer and dogs.