The Color of the Columbia River

When I got my first job working at a marina on the Columbia River, the heavy autumn rains were beginning to replace lighter summer rains. The river began to swell with runoff, a murky brown that remained for about a week. After the rains calmed, the river’s color shifted back to a foggy green. As we passed each other going in opposite directions on the dock, a houseboat tenant told me, “The river is back to its old healthy green color again.” I nodded but thought to myself, Yeah, right. Healthy for the bacteria feeding on the chemical runoff. The river’s greenish-gray color, and the familiarity of it, brought me both comfort and concern. Green was normal. But it was also a reminder of all that was wrong with our relationship to the river. Most maps of the Portland area show the creeks, rivers, and channels in healthy, bright-blue lines. The maps aim for clarity and convention in their representations. Maps also reinforce our expectations about the proper colors of a landscape. The river does indeed look blue at certain angles, when the clouds part and a clear sky reflects off its surface, but moving bodily through a place will reveal living color in motion.

Downstream from the marina office where I worked, the boatyard crew repaired boat hulls and engines, and they kept the property maintained. One day, not long after I started working there, I saw several employees from the yard running frantically up and down the dock, gathering the absorbent pads, booms, cloths, and emergency equipment that indicated a fuel spill on the water. I stopped several of the men, before one of them would fess up. Apparently, someone working on an engine had left a fuel line unclamped on a large powerboat the day before, and the automatic fuel pump had been slowly pumping diesel overboard for the past twenty-four hours.

“How much fuel are we talking?” I asked.

“How the hell should I know? The tank on that boat holds maybe one hundred gallons. Maybe one fifty. Who knows how much fuel was in there. It’s bad.”

I followed him downstream to the section of the marina where a dozen men were busily spreading absorbent cloths over the water. For the remainder of the morning, I helped the cleanup crew sop up the bright-red diesel off the surface of the water. We dabbed at the reddish sheen on wood stringers and wiped the slick ring of fuel from around thirty boat hulls that were moored downstream of the spill.

A dozen others worked for the remainder of the day pushing the slick, red film into a log trap using brooms and high-pressured hoses. The trap was made up of two long stretches of wood tied together into the shape of a V. Absorbent booms and cloths floated inside the jaws of the V, and a small tugboat pushed the trap around the marina, gobbling up the fuel like a floating mouth. Several employees stood at the bow of the tugboat, squirting greenish detergent from spray bottles into the mess, attempting to break up some of the fuel on the surface. One of them had a glowing cigarette hanging from his mouth. Someone yelled across the glistening surface of the water at him. He pulled the cigarette from his mouth and turned back and forth, as if looking for somewhere to toss it. Then he shrugged his shoulders, pinched the lit end between his fingers, and slipped it into his coat pocket.

My stomach sickened as the morning went by. My head began to swim. A haze of evaporating fuel hung unseen in the air. The other men were eerily quiet. No one was willing or able to put a name to what we were up to, nor could they suggest any other options we might have. I began to think this mess was bigger than our efforts could handle. A lot of fuel had already made its way downstream. The shoreline was shimmering with an oily residue. There were murmurs about who had been working on the boat and whose fault it was. Someone said that we only needed to work at it for a little while, then the current and evaporation would do the rest.

My stomach sank further when I realized that someone really needed to report the spill before it disappeared downstream. If we didn’t, it might look like we were trying to cover it up. I told the boatyard manager that I needed to get back to the office and walked the quarter-mile distance to the upper section of the marina. While I walked, I decided what I would do and what I would say. I knew there would be people in the main office and no privacy. No one could know I was making the call that could result in hundreds of thousands of dollars in fines for the marina, which would effectively ruin its reputation in the Portland area. What if it was no big deal and I called anyway and everyone found out it was me who called? What if this was a phone call that would shut down the marina, and I lost my job? What about loyalty? I swallowed hard and decided to remain loyal to the river that was close to my heart.

Around the corner from the office was a public phone booth. When the coast was clear, I stepped inside. I flipped open the Boaters’ Yellow Pages and found a coast guard listing for reporting oil spills. I kept the call short, hoping no one I knew would walk around the corner and see me on the pay phone instead of my usual phone inside the main office. I was among a suspicious people in a small liveaboard community. Word got around fast. Paranoia was settling in.

I was careful not to let on to the dispatcher that I worked at the marina. When I was finished describing what I had seen—along with giving the name and address of the marina where the employees were cleaning up the mess—the woman on the other line started asking questions that I was increasingly uncomfortable answering.

“And can you tell me your name and number?”

“No, I’m sorry. I can’t give you that information. This is a small world down here. I might actually put myself in danger.”

“OK, I will send down an officer right away.”

There, I had done the right thing, though I felt worse. I was worried about more than my job. The shipwrights and the rest of the crew in the yard had lived in the area all their lives. They knew where I lived. Suddenly, I saw them as little more than thugs willing to scare me and my family in order to make a point.

It wasn’t long until a fire marshal came to survey the damage. During his short visit, the red lights on top of his white SUV continued to flash and spin. The fire marshal filled out paperwork with the boatyard manager and quickly left. He took the boatyard manager at his word that only a few gallons of fuel had been spilled. There would be no investigation. More straightforward emergencies in the county needed attention. Higher priorities. Limited emergency resources.

In the days that followed, the tone of conversation at the marina changed. Employees minimized the spill and mocked any attitudes to the contrary. Guys from the boatyard stopped by the office to talk and lighten the mood. I sensed they were feeling me out to see where I stood, or rather, who I would stand with in the end. Even the boatyard manager and his assistant came into the office and, while looking in my direction, joked with each other about the crazies who cry over the poor birds that are suffering because of a little dirty water. One of the men mockingly said, as if weeping, “Boo Hoo! The innocent little flying insects! Poor creatures!” Laughter. I left the room with a stack of papers, not laughing, wanting to cry, unable to do anything but feel sick. The boatyard manager was insistent that it was maybe a gallon or two. The fire marshal agreed with me: “We keep telling people. It only looks like a lot. Have you ever spilled a glass of milk on a tabletop? It spreads out over the surface of the table like nobody’s business. The diesel just sits there on the surface, a super-thin layer. A little goes a long way.”

Everyone around me on the dock seemed eager to move on. The fuel spill remained in my mind, like a canker sore I couldn’t stop working over with my tongue. I called the coast guard again. I did some research. I talked to an agent at the State Department of Environmental Equality. I wanted to know how much fuel could be dumped into the Columbia River before further investigation and cleanup were required. There were too many variables for the agent to say for sure. The state and federal government were working with limited resources. Most of the evidence would be gone, downstream, by the time anyone got around to looking into it. I asked more questions and got more soft-pedalling in return. I persisted. Give me a number. How much “apparent” fuel before someone did something? before they opened an investigation? before they required ongoing cleanup or maintenance? before someone was held accountable? Would it take a lawsuit before someone looked into it or studied it or took samples in order to come to a conclusive statement about what had happened and how bad it had really been? Could I turn myself in as an accomplice? I wanted a number. How many gallons would it take? “We aren’t likely to pursue a situation where there were less than maybe one hundred gallons of fuel involved.” There, I had a number. Was I happy? No, I was not happy.

Sailboats, powerboats, and outboard motors all run on fuel. When you fill their tanks with diesel or gasoline, sometimes a little of it drips or splashes into the water. The caustic scent of fuel is common around boats.

People told me a little bit of Simple Green or another liquid soap would help to clear up the thin layer of gasoline on the water. So when I dribbled a little fuel into the water while fueling up boats, I squirted the water with soap. Since then, I’ve learned that using detergents only scatters the fuel and causes it to rain down into lower layers of the water where it is no longer likely to evaporate. Many detergents themselves are harmful to aquatic life. Someone else told me that 99 percent of the fuel evaporated off the surface after a couple minutes. Dubious claims like “99 percent” and “a couple minutes” cry out for verification. Fuel is a mixture of hundreds of compounds—not all of which evaporate—that continue to harm the ecosystems exposed to them. At the marina, the fuel dock manager’s attitude was to just let the fuel go: “If you leave it alone, it will evaporate much quicker. Let it go. It will disappear. It is not a problem. People make it a problem.”

Why do our limited perceptions and uninformed opinions weigh so heavily in conversations about the use and abuse of our natural environment? How much fuel can be spilled into a river before you give the event a name or call it harmful? Could I confess before a court that, so far this month, I had dribbled maybe an ounce or two of fuel into the water at the fuel dock? What good would come of such a confession? To whom can I promise that I will be more careful? What if I use absorbent pads around fuel nozzles whenever I’m at the pumps? Yes, I can do that. Who will hold me accountable? How long does my guilt remain? Though I repent, I am not made innocent.

At the end of the day of the fuel spill, I went back down to the lower section of the docks. It was past 5:00 p.m. Past time to clock out. I was alone on the dock. Everyone had gone home. I thought, When do you stop cleaning up your own mess? Before you go home for dinner? The water appeared to be back to its old “healthy green” on the upstream side of the dock. The gray sky began to pour rain again. Soon the river would turn brown with runoff.

I walked downstream to the very end of the marina and watched as the thin layer of colorful grease trailed off the thick logs that held the dock together under my feet. Everything the water could reach as it sloshed with the current and the wind was still shedding diesel. The swirling rainbow trailed off and out of sight in the rush of current.

Fuel Spill Guides and Emergency Response Information:

Clean Boater Guide

California Department of Fish & Wildlife: Gasoline Spills Fact Sheet

Oregon Department of Environmental Equality: DEQ Emergency Response Program

Oregon Department of Environmental Equality: What to Do When You’ve Had a Spill

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