The recent fouling of Montana’s Yellowstone River is a warning alarm that we must be more diligent to secure the integrity of our priceless waterways. Yesterday’s farmers, ranchers, miners and honyockers needed the rivers. Now, under increasing industrial and population pressures, the rivers need us.
As with other states, Montana once mistreated many of our rivers, using them as public sewage dumps and mine waste depositories. Early-day farmers and ranchers dewatered the springs and creeks, grazers ruined the riparian grounds. Beginning in the 1960s we came to our senses, writing and passing into law a series of protective legislation which guaranteed cleaner, safer rivers with excellent public access.
Now, with the ExxonMobil pipeline spill in the Yellowstone, we realize we have more to do in assuring the ecological integrity of what Montana’s governor calls “our treasure trove.”
It is a tragic irony that 42,000 gallons of oil have surged into the nation’s last free-flowing, undammed river in the continuous states — the Yellowstone. Channeling through much of Western history, the river was home to the Sioux, Crow, Cheyenne, and Cree. Called the “Mi tse a-da-zi” or Yellow Rock, the river bore the travails of the war against Indian people and rolled on near where Custer died. It provided guidance to William Clark, the Washburn-Langford-Doane Expedition, as well as the many thousands of early travelers moving west.
Today the people who live near its banks depend upon it for water — be it the Big Ditch Project near Billings or the Lower Yellowstone Project that has served the folks of Glendive and Sidney. This river, as with each of Montana’s one hundred plus other “treasure troves,” needs ironclad protection and Montanans must provide it.
This recent spill is just another example of peril to our land and waterways from major corporations. The Yellowstone and Silvertip pipelines originate from the oil refineries near Billings. Running west for 550 miles the line, during the past 50 years, has leaked hundreds of thousands of gallons into Montana’s land and rivers. About 10 years ago, Exxon and Conoco applied for pipeline right-of-way renewal through the Flathead Reservation. Noting that the pipeline had already spilled 71 times on the reservation, the Tribes refused to grant the lease.
The Salish and Kootenai Tribes created a lesson from which we should all learn: Yes, we want the money and the oil jobs, but we insist on our terms; we demand that clean river laws and regulations be written and enforced. Why, twice in just the past year the federal Environmental Protection Agency has delivered letters of warning to Exxon about concern with this very pipeline. Given the most recent spill, the corporation’s response was inadequate. Our pipeline laws and regulations must be more, not less, stringent.
Be it oil spills, dewatering, or overuse, the majority of Montanans are determined to stop the abuses and proudly accept our state’s obligation as the headwaters of America’s great river systems: the Missouri-Mississippi on the east and the Columbia to our west. We owe it not only to ourselves and our children but also to neighbors across the nation.
Pat Williams served nine terms as a U.S. Representative from Montana. After his retirement, he returned to Montana and is teaching at the University of Montana.