Big Spill Country

On July 1, an Exxon pipeline near Billings, Montana ruptured and spilled 42,000 gallons of oil into the Yellowstone River.  More than ten miles of the river are covered in oil, and officials expect the reach of the oil spill to grow. At least 140 people had been evacuated due to concerns over the possibility of explosions, but after a couple of hours, everyone was allowed to return home.

The flooding of the Yellowstone river is exacerbating the problems posed by the oil spill by pushing the oil-coated water further than would be expected under normal conditions. As the waters recede now, farms, rangelands, and lawns all find themselves covered in a thick, oily coating. There are also fears that the oil spill has contaminated drinking water.

Pallid sturgeon (so cute see that snout!). Photo from US Fish and Wildlife

While there are few early reports of loss of wildlife, there will be long-ranging ecological affects resulting from the spill. The Yellowstone is home to a wide variety of fresh water fish, including the endangered pallid sturgeon, and native birds. Animals will attempt to flee the oil spill, however, if they cannot, they’ll be exposed to high levels of toxins: this type of thing was seen in graphic detail during the Gulf oil spill. Compounding the impact of the oil spill on the wildlife, the back channels around this stretch of river are home to fisheries, which will face steep economic losses if the oil spill reaches them.

But the oil spill reaches far past the environmental consequences: even though all evacuees have been allowed to return, human health is put at risk. Oil is a toxic chemical, and the input of large amounts of oil into areas where humans live and work pushes exposure way past the safe limits. While the full health risks associated with this spill have not been releases, residents have been complaining of nausea, dizziness, and shortness of breath. The EPA will come in to test the air quality in the area around the spill.

Oil will break down on its own, however, that is a process that takes a lot of time and can wreak a lot of damage in the interim. Clean-up after an oil spill varies from location to location, depending on the nature of the spill and the potential human and ecological impacts. A variety of techniques are being used to clean up the Yellowstone river, including using pads to soak up the oil, skimming oily water off the surface of the river, and using “booms” or absorbent tubes to contain and clean the oil spill.

Regardless of the techniques used, a completely clean, safe, and healthy environment is still a long way off.  That’s the biggest issue with oil spills ““ they’re one doodle that can’t be undid. Nature is remarkably tough and resilient, but that resilience takes time. While the oil spill is being cleaned up, until it’s all sorted out, the toxic chemical will continue to harm the environment and negatively influence human health. Increased accountability from oil companies, paired with advances in clean-up technology, to prevent spills in the first place is the only way to ensure a safe and functional environment.

Feature photo from Scott Catron, found on Wikicommons. 

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