Why the Yellowstone Oil Spill Is So Tough to Clean Up

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Andrew Cole of Yakima, Washington, on assignment for Exxon Mobil cleans up oil spill along the Yellowstone River in Laurel, Montana. REUTERS / John Warner

Even if you aren’t near the Yellowstone River oil spill right now, the scene is disturbingly familiar. It looks so much like its 2010 cousin in the Gulf of Mexico that it’s almost spooky – the gross underestimation of how much oil is out there, vague reassurances to residents about their health and property safety, and the exclusion of the press from the spill site are all just like last year. And just like the Gulf accident, the Yellowstone spill seems to be getting worse before it gets better. Over the weekend the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) expanded the number of cleanup sites along the Yellowstone to 38, and personnel on the ground reported that the cleanup will likely take weeks to months.

But as far as the mechanics of the cleanup go, the Yellowstone River presents some difficulties that weren’t present last year. A gulf and a river are very different types of water bodies, and they respond to a spill differently— something that’s becoming increasingly clear as the days wear on.

ExxonMobil, the company behind the spill, insists that it is pulling out all the stops to mop up the 42,000 gallons of oil that spilled into the river in early July. Company president Gary Pruessing said on Wednesday that ExxonMobil has applied over 70,000 feet of boom and 3,000 absorbent pads to the spill site to absorb the oil, and that this is all being coordinated by 350 emergency personnel down at the river. Boom blocks the oil from certain areas; absorbent pads soak it up. This is pretty standard; BP did the same thing after their disaster, with some additional steps like skimming – surrounding the oil with skimming vessels so pumps can pull it from the water – and burning, where surface oil is towed away from the main slick and set alight to burn it off.

Photos from TIME: Oil Spill on the Yellowstone River 

But while an oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico presents its own unique hurdles to cleanup efforts – it is the world’s ninth largest body of water, after all – the workers in Montana are dealing with something quite different. The Yellowstone waters are moving quickly: 5 to 7 mph, according to National Wildlife Federation senior scientist Doug Inkley. That has several effects. First, the rushing water is dispersing the oil far away from the spill site so that it is harder for the booms and pads to pick up. Second, steps like skimming and burning aren’t going to be effective because the wide dispersal of the oil means there aren’t any large quantities of crude on the water surface. And finally, the swollen, volatile waters from the flood make it difficult for boats to get out on the river to assess the condition, which hampers efficient cleanup.

“This is a time of peak water flow in the Yellowstone River because its water supply is water from snow runoff, which is occurring at maximum rates now given that it’s July,” Inkley explained. “And if there is any rough water whatsoever, [the booms and pads] are essentially ineffective. They’re not going to get that oil back.”

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Another factor is the architecture of water bodies like the Yellowstone River. Rivers have “riparian zones,” which are shallow, easily flooded interfaces between land and stream. As the river rises, it flows into these riparian zones, where the slower current means the oil-laden flow from the main river will settle on the ground even when the water recedes. Given that riparian zones are where much of the vegetation around the river grows, the pooled oil gets on leaves and soil in the landscape. And this muck has to be cleaned off by hand, one leaf at a time.

“This has to be the final wakeup call,” NWF Campaign Coordinator Jennifer Pelej said. “This spill proves once again that pipelines aren’t safe.”

Hopefully Pelej is right and this incident will snap the industry into action, because even with all its idiosyncrasies the Yellowstone River has some unfortunate similarities to the Gulf in how it might be able to cope with a disastrous oil leak. For one, only 10 to 15% of the oil spilled can realistically be recovered in leaks of this magnitude, according to Inkley, and the impacts of the toxic oil typically reverberate through the surrounding ecosystem for months or even years after the spill. Let’s not forget how fishermen in Cordova, Alaska, are still bankrupt in the wake of the Exxon Valdez spill of 1989, or the dead dolphins that washed up on the Gulf coast this spring. And then there’s the wildlife: in these cases, the most mobile wildlife with permeable skin, like frogs and salamanders, suffer the most.

So what can ExxonMobil do, since the odds seem to be against them? The cleanup is admittedly a huge challenge – mopping up 42,000 gallons of oil is no small feat. But we’d probably give them a little more leeway if they hadn’t taken so long to respond – “holidays are no excuse,” said Inkley – and if they hadn’t covered up their mistakes in hazy sound bites and facts later proven wrong. The thing to do here might be to hand the bulk of the cleanup efforts to someone else, and to have ExxonMobil make up for the disaster through some other avenue. “Right now the company that made the mess is leading the cleaning efforts, and that’s just not right,” said NWF Board Member and Montana resident Kathy Hadly, adding that she wishes EPA were in control of all elements of the cleanup “so data and information are clearly available to all … and so that the whole cleanup is transparent.” But since it looks like ExxonMobil is managing things for now, let’s hope the eerie silence of the frogs and crickets along the riverbanks prompts them to get it right and do the best they can before it’s too late.

Tara Thean is a TIME contributor. Find her on Twitter at @TaraThean. You can also continue the discussion on TIME‘s Facebook page and on Twitter at @TIME.

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