Montana’s Yellowstone River Oil Spill: The Shape of Things to Come?
A couple of weeks ago, I happened to cross the Yellowstone River at Billings, Montana. It was raging café-au-lait. Small islands were all but submerged, bankside vegetation was awash, tree trunks were hurtling along on the flood. It looked like a disaster waiting to happen, and on the night of July 1 the disaster duly arrived, when the Yellowstone hit flood stage and an Exxon pipeline a few miles west of Billings, buried in concrete six feet deep, ruptured and spilled 42,000 gallons of oil into the river. The working theory, until engineers can get closer to the site, is that the flood scoured out the riverbed, laid bare the pipe, and exposed it to all manner of hurtling debris.
An event like this holds all kinds of lessons. First of all, this year’s floods in the northern Rockies have been epic. After a decade of declining snowpack, last winter brought record snowfalls followed by torrential spring rains. (The deniers are on to this one already: What do you mean, global warming? Look at all that snow.) Second, the proposed Keystone XL pipeline, which will carry oil from the Canadian tar sands, will also be buried in the bed of the Yellowstone. Third, the Exxon pipeline fully met federal safety regulations, proving yet again that said regulations don’t come close to what we need, especially in an era when thousand-year floods, once-in-a-lifetime tornados, and no-way-that-could-ever-happen tsunamis, seem to occur about twice a month.
But the Yellowstone spill made me think about something quite different, especially when I heard Governor Brian Schweitzer’s angry comment to Exxon that “we take our rivers very seriously here in Montana.” Well, yes, and, um… no. Just two days before my visit to Billings, I’d been driving around one of the most remote and undisturbed corners of a still largely undisturbed state, an area where Governor Schweitzer, a Democrat, recently leased 9,600 acres of state land in the remote Otter Creek valley to Arch Coal, the second biggest company in the business, allowing it to strip-mine 731,000 tons of coal.
Politicians in Montana have always been in love with the idea of digging fortunes out of the ground. Nineteenth-century Montana Territory was built on gold mines; the modern state was built on copper. For decades there has been talk of Montana as the "Saudi Arabia of coal," with reserves dwarfing those of neighboring Wyoming, which provides 40 percent of all American coal. The present governor has never met a form of coal he didn’t like: thermal coal, metallurgical coal, strip-mined coal, underground coal, coal gasification, coal-to-liquids, you name it. He likes to refer to coal mining as "deep farming," and most of the Otter Creek coal would be destined for what the industry see as its next great harvest: exports to Asia (about which I’ll be writing at greater length in the Fall 2011 issue of OnEarth).
Yet Schweitzer likes to portray himself not only as an environmentalist but as an embodiment of the old Montana, "the last best place." Look at his campaign materials, or the state’s free highway map, and there’s the governor with his lovely wife, Nancy, leaning against a split-rail fence with some horses. He’s usually wearing a cowboy hat and a bolo tie, with a folksy twinkle in his eye. The problem with this carefully cultivated image is that Otter Creek is the old Montana incarnate, and he’s proposing to tear it apart.
To get to the Otter Creek coal tracts, I turned off state highway 212 at a derelict building with a weather-faded sign that said "Stockman’s Bar -- Your Choice of Drinks -- Dutch Lunches Served" and entered a maze of red-dirt back roads. For mile upon mile there was no sign that humans had ever touched this land. Sagebrush and ponderosa pine covered the gentle slopes, and the low hills fell away to undulating prairie, uninhabited even by cattle. At intervals I passed weirdly eroded sandstone bluffs and rockpiles worn into the shape of medieval castles and minarets. The only sound was birdsong.
Otter Creek itself is a placid, meandering stream that flows through a broad, green valley, bordered by the Custer National Forest and dotted with occasional ranches. Eventually it flows into the Tongue River, a major tributary of the Yellowstone. The new mines would disfigure the Tongue Valley, too, because the coal would be hauled to market on a new, 139-mile railroad along the river, connecting the mines to the main Burlington Northern Santa Fe line. On the next leg of their journey to Asia, the mile-and-a-half-long coal trains from Otter Creek would follow the banks of the Yellowstone on their way to the huge switching yard in Laurel, eight miles west of Billings. For those who like their stories to have a nice narrative shape, Laurel is where the Exxon oil spill occurred.
Montana’s coal dreams have repeatedly foundered in the past, and the same thing may happen with Governor Schweitzer’s. Yes, the state has massive reserves, but they have remained in the ground for a reason, or rather a couple of reasons. Most coal-fired power plants in this country can’t handle the Montana product, because it’s so high in sodium, which can clog conventional boilers. More important, Otter Creek is in a highly sensitive alluvial river valley, forcing a rigorous environmental review of Arch Coal’s plans. So the fight over Otter Creek is far from over, and Montana environmentalists intend to make it a very big fight indeed.
As I write this, five days after the spill, the U.S. Geological Survey stream gauge at Billings shows the Yellowstone running at 55,300 cubic feet per second -- close to the highest level on this date in the 80 years of modern record-keeping -- and still rising. Oil has now been detected as far downstream as the town of Hysham, 100 miles from Billings and more than halfway to the mouth of the Tongue. So be a little wary as you listen to Brian Schweitzer talking about how seriously he takes rivers. Rivers with iconic names and reputations perhaps, but not the equally lovely ones that are tucked away, out of sight and out of mind, and ready for some deep farming.