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Boom leaves Missouri River oily and polluted

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DICKINSON — In our national discourse, we rarely hear love professed for a person, place, thing or idea. We push piggish policies and promote infinite consumption on a finite planet.

I would like to change that with a profession: I love the Missouri River.

The mighty Missouri, muddy and large, flowed along the county where I grew up in North Dakota. Oliver County, N.D., is known for its farming and rich coal deposits. It is also just across the river from McLean County, N.D., which holds Fort Mandan, the place where Lewis and Clark spent more time than any other on their westward trip across the continent.

From a young age, the Missouri River shaped me. I spent afternoons fishing with my grandparents and catching tadpoles in backwater eddies, and I’ve kayaked the river. In high school, friends and I would dive off river banks and swim in swift currents. The story of the Missouri River seemed to flow into my own life’s story.

Now, though, I do not swim in the Missouri River. I do not eat fish caught in the river. And I find myself spending more time wondering what we have wrought in our conspicuous consumption of the natural world to keep up with the Joneses.

It seems that much of the country has taken little notice of the more than 7,200 oil, saltwater and chemical spills that have plagued western North Dakota since the advent of the Bakken oil boom. The motto of the boom — “Drill, baby, drill” — does not paint a full picture of what this boom does to our national and global security.

Millions of gallons of oil, saltwater and chemicals have been spilled, and all of these toxins empty into the Missouri River watershed, largely in the Lake Sakakawea reservoir.

But these spills do not only affect North Dakota. The Missouri River winds and meanders through South Dakota and hugs Nebraska, Iowa, and Kansas before it empties into the Mississippi River, north of St. Louis. The spills that fill the Missouri River system effectively flow across the entirety of the breadbasket.

By the time the Mississippi River empties into the Gulf of Mexico, it creates a 500-square-mile dead zone, an area that is void of any biological life. What will happen as polluted waters from the Missouri River continue to float and fill the already polluted Mississippi River?

John Muir wrote, “When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the Universe.”

The Missouri River is not only a national treasure, it the very source of life for this country. By mismanaging and turning a covered eye, we not only highlight our own foolishness, we lose sight of everything we are connected to.

Brorby is an essayist and environmentalist.

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