My Own Personal Oil Spill

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.)

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  1. Just be glad you weren’t changing the oil on a boat. Drip enough overboard to produce a sheen, and you’d have to report it. Even if the amount was tiny and you cleaned it up, you could incur a fine or civil penalty, presumably as a lesson to be more careful next time:

    Sigh deeply. You were lucky.

  2. There is no argument that spilled petroleum products are at best messy and at worst catastrophic. However, moving away from the high energy density of petroleum, in favor of significantly lower efficiency alternatives also presents problems. Energy is crucial to the economic development of 3rd world countries, to the feeding of their people, to raising their standard of living. Both solar and wind are much more expensive alternatives. In most cases, the abandonment of oil will retard if not stall or even reverse those nations’ progress. As for the US, The more we adopt inefficient and expensive alternative energy schemes, the more expensive our goods get and the lower our standard of living goes. It gets more difficult to afford goods that those 3rd world countries produce, thus slowing their progress further. It is folly to abandon oil simply because we have a very rare serious accident. We do so to the great detriment of ourselves and those nations struggling to bring prosperity to their people for the first time. Far better to find ways of extracting and transporting that pose a greatly reduced risk of environmental damage.

  3. thanks for cleaning up your mess, randy. not everybody would have done that.

  4. WOW, you really need to stop reading those silly propaganda stories disguised as conservation from the corrupt media and you certainly need to stop creating them. It is responsible to keep your spill to a minimum but please learn a little biology and chemistry before spreading this type of paranoia. When your spilled oil is in a part of the ecosystem where it can do damage it is also in a part of the system where microbes will be able to consume it. Even a large spill like our recent gulf disaster or the Exxon Alaskan spill only have a real impact on wildlife measured in years not decades. Your driveway spill will impact nothing. Long term impact, zero, same as the two much larger examples. Granted people with a corrupt agenda will be able to fabricate impact from anything but this is not science and it is certainly not conservation!

  5. Um, you do know that they sell pans for oil changes at, like, every auto parts store in the country, right?

    Cardboard? Seriously?

  6. my brother in law deliberately pours the oil on the ground as he thinks it is too much trouble otherwise and he feels it is his land to with as he feels. he has a lot of cars, trucks and heavy equipment so there must be many gallons of oil going to earth. is this not illegal? can i anonymously report him?

  7. Propaganda? How disturbing to think that someone who quite clearly gets his own information from the “corrupt media” and not the primary literature would challenge an ecologist working for the Nature Conservancy on his knowledge of Biology and Chemistry, and furthermore presume to have a better understanding of what is and is not conservation. Not to mention that the post did not even mention the process by which oil breaks down, which leads me to believe that your venting is more than a little misplaced. Don’t worry hunny, when oil runs out then you won’t have to worry about the crazy libs and their agenda to steal your SUV.

  8. Help! I just moved in to a rental house. The side yard looks like a previous tenant dumped their used engine oil there each oil change. Yes I know the easy answer is report it to the landlord & let them deal with it. But I’m a hippie at heart & don’t want to imagine the yard being dug up & the trees removed. Is there ANY green solution? Is there an enzyme that can break down the oil over time? I’m willing to put in the elbow grease (no pun intended) as long as there is a viable “green” solution.

  9. You behaved well after the spill, I doubt there would be any action pursued against you.

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