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Only 20 Critters Harmed in Oil Spill? Expert Calls That Misleading

July 21, 2011

HELENA, Mont. - The damage to wildlife because of the ExxonMobil oil spill in the Yellowstone River appears to be minimal. Only about 20 critters have been observed covered with oil.

However, that count is misleading, according to wildlife biologist Doug Inkley with the National Wildlife Federation. To tally up the real damage, one needs to look in the river, he says, not just along the riverbanks.

"We need to observe not only the fish, but the entire food chain. The fish depend on all these little invertebrates - little mayflies, nymphs and things of this type - and those are very susceptible."

A U.S. Senate subcommittee held a hearing on the Yellowstone spill on Wednesday. Inkley testified earlier before a similar subcommittee hearing in the House, calling for stronger federal safety regulations. He says that's critically important as the Keystone XL pipeline is considered, which would also cross the Yellowstone, as well as the Missouri River and hundreds of other waterways.

Exxon has promised to keep crews working along the Yellowstone River until the spill is cleaned up. Inkley remains concerned, however, noting how cleanup has played out at hundreds of other oil spills.

"One needs to understand that when they call it 'cleaned up' and leave, they will have recovered, at most, probably 5 percent of the oil. 'Cleanup' is kind of a misnomer."

Based on the environmental conditions left behind after similar spills, Inkley warns that public health needs strong protection downstream.

"The Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks Department needs to give serious consideration to closing fishing until such time as there has been adequate testing to document that the fish are safe to eat."

The ExxonMobil Yellowstone response website is www.exxonmobil.com.

Deb Courson Smith, Public News Service - MT