Kayakers Scout for Spilled Oil In Montana

Gary Steele set out by kayak to survey the Yellowstone River and, in particular, the backwaters where power boats can't go.

On Saturday, Gary Steele and a few companions set out by kayak on the Yellowstone River in Montana—an unlikely site for outdoor adventure sports given that a nearby ExxonMobil pipeline broke early in June, spilling an estimated 1,000 barrels of oil. Steele and his companions were there to survey the damage.

On their first day, the kayakers did not come across any pools of oil, but they did see, along a lower river downstream, a black line streaked through the trees and bushes about three feet above the water level, “like a bathtub-type of ring of oil,” Steele said this morning.

ExxonMobil’s clean-up efforts, overseen by the Environmental Protection Agency, are concentrating on the 20 miles of river just below the break in the pipe, where most of the oil collected. There have been reports of patches of oil far further downriver, though, and earlier in the month, Steele heard Montana Gov. Brian Schweitzer say that along most of the river, nobody could assess what had happened, because the water level was so high.

Steele, who’s 58 and has been kayaking for almost 30 years, thought, “Kayaks can get in there just fine.”

After calling a few friends and sending out a message online that made its way around boating communities, Steele set out for the river with a few companions, including Alan Kesselheim, a writer out of Bozeman, and Joe Storto, “a friend of a friend.” Today, he’ll be joined by a former kayaking student and the student’s girlfriend. The plan is to make their way slowly down the river, talking to land owners, collecting oil samples, and paddling into backwaters—tributaries and inlets where oil tends to accumulate. “We can sneak into a lot of those places really easily and have a personal look at what’s going on,” said Steele. Official clean-up crews looking for oil, on the other hand, tend to navigate the river on power boats far too large to investigate these areas.

The government is still investigating the cause of the spill, and last week a pipeline safety official said that tar sands oil, a more toxic and corrosive type of crude oil, could have weakened the pipe that broke. In the aftermath of an oil spill, the affected area is usually be cut off to the general public, precluding self-motivated volunteer efforts like Steele’s. After the Gulf oil spill last year, volunteers headed for the southeast coast, only to find limited opportunities to pitch in. Organizations like Greenpeace eventually canvassed the coastline for oil slicks, and wildlife protection groups like the Audubon Society and National Wildlife Federation organized naturalists who wanted to help monitor the fate of oiled birds and other animals.

Montana officials haven’t objected to the kayaking trip, but they haven’t shown any interest in the work Steele’s doing, either. The Environmental Protection Agency and the state Department of Environmental Quality would “prefer boaters stay off the river,” the Billings Gazette reported on Saturday, and the EPA’s on-site coordinator told the Montana paper that while the decision to keep boaters away is in the state’s jurisdiction, “From my perspective, it’s certainly a safety issue.”

Steele thinks, though, that there’s a need for this observation, and no one was stepping up to do it. On his first day, he found that the official survey of affected wildlife had been “really inadequate.” One landowner he talked to had already had a crew come and check for wildlife damage; they didn’t find any impact. “He went for a little walk out on his property, and he found a oiled deer, a family of geese, and a number of ducks. To me, that indicates they’re not doing a very good job,” Steele said.

Steele’s day job is in construction, and he teaches kids to kayak whenever he has the opportunity. This is his first time paddling down the Yellowstone River. “I’ve always wanted to do the Yellowstone and never had the opportunity,” he said. “This isn’t the time I’d like to do the Yellowstone. But this is when I’m on it.”

Photo courtesy of flickr user USFWS Mountain Prairie, Creative Commons Attribution License 2.0

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