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Jul. 06, 2011

The Price of Progress? Oil Spills into the Yellowstone River

by Kaitlyn Gerber

Click to enlarge images

By Kaitlyn Gerber, Carleton College

Oil swirls down the Yellowstone River in Lockwood, Montana following a spill from a nearby pipeline. Photo courtesy of ABC News.

One year after the infamous BP Oil Spill in the Gulf of Mexico, new oil spills are still causing environmental problems.

Last Saturday, an Exxon-Mobil pipeline ruptured, spilling up to 42,000 gallons (approximately 1,000 barrels) of crude oil into the Yellowstone River and forcing the evacuations of many nearby residents. Although over 300 people are working on cleaning up the spill, Exxon-Mobil revealed that the impact of the leak could extend far beyond the ten-mile river, with potentially devastating ecological consequences.

The break was near Billings, in southern Montana. Although the exact cause of the spill is unknown, experts have estimated that the increased pressure of the river, which was swollen from flooding, could have caused the pipe to break.

Yellowstone River watershed. The spill occurred near Billings, Montana, and is currently flowing eastward towards North Dakota. Photo courtesy of the Montana Division of Water Resources.

Unfortunately, there are no dams in the river. As a result, although cleanup efforts are underway, the oil plume could spread all the way to the Missouri River if it isn’t somehow stopped. This problem is only increased by the fact that the river is running at flood stage, meaning that the spill will spread faster than usual. Steve Knecht, chief of operations for Montana's Disaster and Emergency Services, said in a public statement "the timing couldn't be worse." In an attempt to trap the oil, volunteers are releasing absorbant pads and booms, which act as barriers to stop the flow of oil. However, it is possible that, because of the elevated floodwaters, the oil is simply passing under the booms.

Oil spills are some of the deadliest forms of pollution. Oil is particularly harmful to birds because it coats their feathers, making it harder for them to fly. In addition, when birds preen, they ingest the oil, which can damage their livers and livers. Oil spills in the still water, such as last year’s oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, are also harmful to marine mammals because oil coats the fur of seals and sea otters, reducing their ability to retain heat as well as making them more vulnerable to predators. As a result, many of these animals actually die from hypothermia.

The ecological damage of this particular spill remains to be seen. The spill is downstream from the famous Yellowstone National Park, but it still may harm fish, waterbirds, and other inhabitants of the river’s environment. However, if the oil manages to reach the Missouri River, the damage could be much greater. In the meantime, volunteers will attempt to clean up the spill and prevent further damage.

Fortunately, little ecological damage has been reported so far. Duane Titus, of the International Bird Rescue in California, said that the only injured waterfowl he has found so far are a few pelicans with oil on their wings. Because the water is so high, many of the river’s geese and birds are currently migrating, and not living on the river. In addition, because the river moves so quickly, the oil will most likely be less toxic than it would be in still water, such as oceans and seas.

However, possible effects on human health are a concern as well. On Monday, Montana landowner and National Wildlife Federation coordinator Alexis Bonogofsky was taken to the hospital after exposure to oil fumes caused her dizziness, nausea, and trouble breathing. Although air and water tests have not yielded harmful results, adverse effects on human health cannot be ruled out, particularly because oil contains benzene, which can cause cancer.

“We’re not saying it’s good, we’re not saying it’s bad,” said Bob Gibson of the Department of Fish, Wildlife, and Parks in a public statement. “We haven’t found anything substantive yet, but that doesn’t mean it’s not there.”

In the case of the Yellowstone River spill, the fishing industry could be seriously damaged because oil kills many of the insects and plankton that live on the river. Because these organisms form the base of the food chains in the river, their deaths could lead the fish to starve. In ecology, this type of effect is called a “bottom-up” effect, because the number of fish is controlled by the amount of plankton that is available for them to eat.

Exxon-Mobil was apparently in compliance with all federal regulations regarding oil pipelines. Yet the spill still happened. Hopefully it can be cleaned up before it causes too much damage; however, we still need to ask: are oil regulations as strict as they need to be, if they allow for these kinds of disasters to happen? What is the true cost of our need for oil?

To learn how you can possibly help with the cleanup, check out volunteer organizations such as the International Bird Rescue or contact the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

About Kaitlyn Gerber

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Science Friday.

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