Randy Swaty is a fire ecologist with the LANDFIRE team for The Nature Conservancy’s North America program.
I like working on cars. Over the years I’ve changed or replaced everything on my cars from air filters to engines. It gives me a chance to see if there are other problems and maybe even fix a few. Back in April, I decided to change the oil in our truck, so I went outside and I grabbed everything I needed.
I have to tell you: My family and I live on a 20-acre farm in the back of the Beyond, next to the beautiful, winding Laughing Whitefish River in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. You could call my home a piece of paradise and be pretty close to the truth. It certainly is one of the world’s most beautiful places to change your oil.
Because our driveway is dirt, I put down some cardboard to catch any pesky drips. That done, I slid the drain pan into place and then removed the plug. After double-checking the pan placement, I crawled out, put a John Prine CD in the radio and noted some Sandhill Cranes soaring above. Perfect.
Figuring that the oil had all drained out, I took a peak underneath to see it pouring over the top of the drain pan, past the cardboard and right onto the dirt! I plunged my hand into the hot oil to open the drain pan plug that I had forgotten about. D&%mmit! How could I be such an idiot? I’ve done this job dozens if not hundreds of times with no problems.
Because I work for The Nature Conservancy, a million environmental recriminations ran through my mind: “How many gallons of groundwater will be polluted?” “I hope the wife and kids don’t see this.” “Boy wouldn’t I be the laughing stock of the neighborhood, like ‘Hey look! The tree hugger has an oil slick in his yard!’” “Have I stepped in it?” “Will I be tracking it all over the place?” and on and on.
Luckily, having had conversations with loggers who deal with oil spills, I knew what to do. I hauled out a couple bags of oil soaker (very similar to cat litter), spread out 20 pounds of the stuff under the truck and hoped for the best. After finishing the oil change and moving the truck out of the way, I started shoveling the gooey black oil, soaker and dirt from the driveway. In the end, it took four times as long to complete the cleanup as it did to change the oil.
April 21 was the one-year anniversary of the Gulf Coast oil spill — and there I was, shoveling oil-soaked dirt in my front yard. What was I going to do with that now oil-covered shovel that I use in my organic garden? Disposing of the toxic waste and dealing with the tools I used to attack the spill became new problems to solve. How far down the slippery slope was this going to go?
On my little farm, in my own yard, I learned firsthand how miserable trying to clean up a toxic mess can be. I’ll never know how many gallons of groundwater I polluted that night, but it was significant to me, to my driveway, and to the place I dumped it. I thought about the loggers who keep the oil spill kits in their trucks. I thought about Gulf Coast workers still cleaning beaches, birds and boats a year later. I thought about how I have lost my sense of what is precious, taking my water supply for granted just years after moving from arid Arizona, for instance, or driving without a thought to the bar that’s only seven miles down the road.
I know what I can do to prevent future oil spills, but there is a bigger issue that hit home, literally: Because we continue to depend on petroleum, these accidents are inevitable, on both small and epic scales. We environmentalists say it all the time: Day to day, in every way, we must conserve resources for people and other life, and then year after year after year, for the rest of our fragile existence, we must support development of sustainable alternatives.
Today I think I’ll skip the commute and work from home.
(Image credit: modenadude/Flickr through a Creative Commons license.)