Famous or obscure, our rivers are priceless

  • A worker collects soiled pads along a containment boom near the confluence of the Yellowstone and Clark’s Fork rivers.

    Jerry Leggatte USBR
  • Canada geese rest on the oil-covered bank of the Yellowstone River. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service conducts daily aerial wildlife surveys to identify, monitor and assess damage to wildlife and their habitats.

    USFWS / David Rouse

I have never visited the Louisiana Gulf Coast or Alaska's Valdez Bay, but like you, I carry indelible mental images of spewing pipelines and oil-soaked seabirds from the environmental disasters that happened there.

Now the images are hitting closer to home. The Yellowstone River runs the length of my home state of Montana like a femoral artery. My wife and I honeymooned at its headwaters and have explored its lower reaches as well. The muscular, cantankerous Yellowstone is the longest undammed river in the Lower 48 states, storied with the lives of the Sioux and Crow, explorers like Lewis and Clark and the early fur trappers.

It is also where a modern tragedy is now unfolding. The Yellowstone River has taken its place as the site of a high-profile oil spill, alongside the Exxon Valdez and Deepwater disasters. It started with a La Niña weather pattern that dumped historic amounts of snow over Montana all winter and well into the spring.  When warm weather finally came, nearly every stream in the state flooded, isolating entire towns.

Near the refinery town of Billings, Exxon maintains the Silvertip pipeline, which crosses under the bed of the Yellowstone. Details are sketchy, but high water and scouring debris evidently proved too much for the pipe. On July 1, it burst, spewing an estimated 1,000 barrels of oil -- 42,000 gallons -- and sweeping it miles downstream.

I have a hard time imagining that much oil, but I know that even a single empty quart container of motor oil does not belong in the Yellowstone. Authorities scrambled into position, with Exxon officials downplaying the spill and promising prompt cleanup, while Montana's Gov. Brian Schweitzer eagerly stepped into the role of states' rights watchdog in his inimitable style.

"There ain't nobody gonna blow smoke up the south side of this north-facing governor," Schweitzer said, swearing to be all over Exxon "like stink on a skunk" and "poke them with a sharp stick" until the cleanup is complete.

It's going to take more than sharp words to correct the underlying problem. It's going to take political leaders with courage and a memory longer than a 30-second sound bite.

Five years ago, President Bush declared that the United States was addicted to oil. It's an apt analogy. Addicts destroy their work and families, and ultimately their lives to feed their vices. We Americans destroy our precious rivers, our national security and our health to feed our petroleum addiction. Yet we've been astonishingly reluctant to deal with it. To attract national attention, for example, an oil spill has to take place on a huge scale or damage a famous river like the Yellowstone. But smaller disasters occur all around us, every day.

CBS News recently tallied up all the reported oil company accidents in 2010 in the United States, not including the Deepwater disaster in the Gulf. It counted 6,500 spills, fires and explosions, or about 18 every day. Added up, the spilled oil, grease and industrial wastewater totaled 34 million gallons -- about three times the capacity of the Exxon Valdez tanker ship -- in 2010 alone.

Is there a small-scale, slow motion mess unfolding near you? Almost certainly yes. I'm as guilty as anyone, with my Ford pickup and its thirsty dual tanks. I know it's time for me to put more miles on my mountain bike and fewer on the pickup. Individual action is important, but it's not enough to make the change we need. We need the corporations and government officials who wield the real power to plan for a safer future.

The fact is: You cannot spill clean energy. Solar, wind and other innovative and valid sources of energy all have their drawbacks, but massive water and air pollution is not among them.

Will we repeat our mistakes? We will soon find out. The TransCanada Company is seeking permission to build the Keystone XL Pipeline to send Alberta crude to the refineries of the Gulf Coast. This massive new pipeline will cross the Yellowstone and Missouri rivers in Montana, as well as many other water sources along its course. Already, TransCanada is making rosy predictions about the safety of the pipeline, predictions exposed as unrealistically optimistic by an independent review by a University of Nebraska engineer.

We've all seen this kind of behavior before whenever addicts hit bottom: emptied bank accounts and broken lives. Most of all, we've heard promises: Things will be different next time. But those promises are always broken. Right now, the floodwaters are still too high to know what the final toll on the Yellowstone will be. But the images of crude oil in this splendid river are making me, for one, sober up.

Ben Long is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News (hcn.org). He is the senior program director for Resource Media in Kalispell, Montana.

Note: the opinions expressed in this column are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of High Country News, its board or staff. If you'd like to share an opinion piece of your own, please write Betsy Marston at [email protected].

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