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Missouri residents recall Gasconade River oil spill

Monday, June 21, 2010 | 12:01 a.m. CDT; updated 8:21 a.m. CDT, Monday, June 21, 2010

VIENNA — From his backyard deck, Guy Wittler only has to look at the Gasconade River running below to see something familiar in the Gulf of Mexico oil spill.

A massive pipeline ruptured on Wittler's property nearly 22 years ago and spewed more than 860,000 gallons of crude oil into the Gasconade. It was the worst inland oil spill in U.S. history.

Until recently, the spill had been largely forgotten. But memories of the incident have flooded back with the Gulf's deepwater catastrophe. Parallels between the two spills, despite vast differences in size, are striking — offering possible hints of what is to come in the Gulf's still-unfolding drama.

"It's a lot of stupidity once again," said Sherry Bingaman, who lived along the Gasconade during the 1988 spill. The oil turned the Gasconade's clear-green waters a sickly black. And just like the current situation, the oil company's estimates of the spill's size kept rising like the tide.

There was finger-pointing over who was at fault. The cleanup, estimated to take just a few weeks, dragged on for months and was criticized for mistakes. Government officials and the oil company battled every step of the way. The oil company ended up pleading guilty to environmental crimes.

Two decades later, the Gasconade seems to have recovered, due in part to lucky circumstances. But Wittler worries the Gulf will not turn out so well.

"How are they going to do any of this," he said, waving at the scrubbed, narrow river, "on that scale?"

It was Christmas Eve 1988 when the underground pipeline erupted on Wittler's lush land in the Ozark foothills, 25 miles north of Rolla.

The 22-inch steel line, operated by a division of Shell Oil, carried crude 435 miles from Oklahoma to a refinery in Wood River, Ill. A long, thin crack dumped oil into the Shoal Creek tributary and then the Gasconade, a swift waterway that meanders north through 10 counties before emptying into the Missouri River.

Wittler had just finished a Christmas Eve turkey dinner at his father's home in Kirkwood when the phone rang. The call was from a hog farmer living next to the Ozark property. He said the river was black. Oil smelled like it was hanging in the air. He suspected a pipeline had burst.

When Wittler drove up to the property two hours later, the fumes were so heavy, he could barely breathe.

"I was lucky I wasn't smoking," he said.

But Shell initially did not know the pipeline was spewing oil, according to a subsequent federal investigation. A Shell worker in Oklahoma failed to notice the pipeline's plummeting pressure gauges for at least two hours. The delay made the spill four times worse, the report concluded.

Even more oil escaped because the pipeline valve nearest the leak could not be closed automatically. It had to be turned by hand.

Shell eventually dispatched cleanup crews to Vienna that night. But the company was later criticized for failing to immediately notify state regulators.

Meanwhile, the Gasconade was struggling to choke down a 15-mile-long plume of oil, more than a foot thick in places. Just as in the Gulf, floating boom lines were laid across the banks and ahead of the spill. And just as in the Gulf, there were reports of oil topping the booms. Vacuum-equipped trucks and a skimmer barge tried to suck oil from the water.

Within days, the plume thinned out into patches of tar balls, heavy chunks and a greasy sheen. The oil slid into the Mississippi River, reaching St. Louis within a week and then Cape Girardeau. Water treatment plants in the St. Louis area braced to deal with potential oil contamination. The Anheuser-Busch brewery in St. Louis was shut down, and 2,000 workers were laid off for several days after a brewery taster noted an oily smell in the water.

Shell downplayed the severity of the spill. At first, it said only 120,000 gallons of oil had escaped. Then it would comment only on how much oil it had recovered — about 300,000 gallons, estimating that accounted for 90 percent of the spill.

The state Department of Natural Resources threatened a subpoena before Shell admitted the oil spill was at least 840,000 gallons, a number that would rise again. Shell said it delayed reporting a figure only because it wanted to be accurate.

Shell also tightly controlled the flow of information about the spill.

"It was a typical oil company response, much like you're seeing now," said attorney Patrick Flachs, who was a U.S. Department of Justice environmental crimes prosecutor during the Gasconade spill.

Shell blamed a pipe manufacturing defect for the spill. But a federal report, while noting the pipe's flaw, placed the blame on a pressure surge caused by a Shell worker who abruptly shifted the pipeline's flow. The report noted that the lone Shell employee working Christmas Eve had not been trained to handle a crisis.

Bob DiStefano was one of the first state officials on the scene.

A scientist with the state conservation department, DiStefano flew over the spill at daybreak. He recalled seeing "these black, huge slugs" of oil moving down the river. He later walked down to the river and collected water samples. Lab tests confirmed the oil was highly toxic.

"We thought it was going to be horrendous" for wildlife, DiStefano said.

Another conservation scientist, Tom Kulowiec, spent weeks looking at the immediate effect on mammals such as muskrats and beavers.

"Every animal that came in contact with that oil died," Kulowiec recalled.

But he didn't find that many dead animals — about 16 muskrats and a couple of beavers, although many more animals were assumed to have died. DiStefano and other scientists never saw massive fish kills. No one doubted the lethality of the oil. But it was the dead of winter. The birds were gone. Most of the fish stayed below the oil slick because of the season. Nature seemed safely subdued.

"In the end, we felt like we were saved largely by the colder weather," DiStefano said.

Long-term studies showed animal populations returned to close-to-normal levels within a year, although minor effects were still evident.

But DiStefano said the oil spill in the gulf would devastate wildlife, especially given the delicate estuaries and breeding grounds in the oil's expected path.

"I cringed when I first heard about it," he said. "I don't think they're going to be as fortunate as we were."

In early 1989, after learning of problems with the cleanup, then-Gov. John Ashcroft railed that Shell was guilty of "at best, incompetence" and "at worst, an attempted cover-up."

Shell had been widely applauded for its efforts until then. It kept adding workers until about 500 people and 40 boats were deployed to scrub oil from 100 miles of the Gasconade and parts of the Missouri River.

Then state investigators found a hidden pool of oil on a sandbar that was supposedly clean. Someone else turned up several pairs of coveralls buried in the river by cleanup workers. The mood changed. Support for Shell withered. Two state officials had been monitoring the cleanup process. That number was beefed up to 10.

Ashcroft was one of many public officials who voiced a renewed anger — a note familiar in the words of today's politicians as the BP cleanup drags on.

"We will not tolerate sloppiness, incompetence or subterfuge," Ashcroft said in 1989. "We will not tolerate claims that a cleanup is too expensive. We'll see that no stone is left unturned as we work to ensure that Shell's oil is removed from our rivers."

The cleanup dragged on. Shell said it would be done by April. Then more oil was discovered sitting in backwater channels. Finally, after 10 months and $14 million, regulators and Shell agreed the Gasconade was clean.

"They did a great job, they really did," said Vienna Mayor Leslie Darr, who was a deputy sheriff during the spill.

It took three years, but in 1992 a top executive with Shell subsidiary Shell Pipe Line Corp. appeared in the federal courthouse in St. Louis. He was there to plead guilty on behalf of the company to a misdemeanor violation of dumping refuse into a waterway. Shell and Texaco Pipeline Inc., which jointly owned the pipeline, also paid a $7 million fine.

The prosecutor, Flachs, said the oil spill had been caused by "out-and-out negligence."

Shell did not respond to calls for comment.

But its former top executive, Robert McMahan, once offered advice to others in the oil business based on his experience with the Gasconade spill.

"There are no secrets. When you have bad news of this magnitude, don't try to hide it," he said at an 1990 industry conference in Evanston, Ill. "Break the news to the press and work with them to inform the public. Environmental problems can take many years and much effort to resolve. It is better in the long run to prevent them from occurring in the first place."

Even years after the spill, Wittler still found hints of oil in the Gasconade.

He would step onto a sandbar, and the water would develop an oily sheen. Only in the last few years has that sheen disappeared, he said. The hillside where the pipe burst and oil once rained down into the river, its vegetation killed off by the oil's black blanket, has fully regrown.

"You wouldn't think anything would recover from that," Wittler said. "But it did."

The successful cleanup is not the only reason the Gasconade spill has been forgotten. The incident also was quickly overshadowed. Just three months after the Ozarks oil spill, the Exxon Valdez supertanker crashed in Alaska.


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