Eugene Water and Electric Board holds an annual “spill drill” on the river, but many in the public may be oblivious to exactly what that is, let alone its importance.
The spill drills began in 2001 and have grown ever since EWEB received a Homeland Security grant in 2002. Members of the McKenzie Watershed Emergency Response System (MWERS) held the drill Oct. 11 at Hendricks Bridge County Park, upstream from EWEB’s Hayden Bridge Water Treatment Facility, and its multiple boat ramps and shallow water for first responders to wade across.
EWEB’s environmental specialist David Donahue says there is a small spill roughly every year adjacent to or in the McKenzie River, typically from a single-car crash or small wreck. So while it is small spills like this that MWERS can respond to rather quickly and pose very little threat, it is the bigger spills that are more concerning.
On Feb. 16, 2020, a gasoline tanker crashed on Highway 22 and spilled an estimated 7,800 gallons of oil onto the highway, with some of the oil getting into the North Santiam River. While the oil spill did not affect the quality of the drinking water, a cleanup of such nature can take its toll. “Cleanups like that can easily approach $1 million dollars or more, but had that tanker crashed in the river directly, that’s the kind of worst case event that we hope never happens. Very low likelihood, but also something that we want to be ready for,” Donahue says.
MWERS agencies include Eugene Springfield Fire & EMS, the Lane County Sheriff’s Office, McKenzie Fire & Rescue and the U.S. Forest Service. Dozens of first responders waded into the McKenzie during the drill and set up fast-water containment booms, which direct oil and other contaminants onto a skimmer that can then be removed from the water.
The importance of removing oil and other contaminants affects how we use water in every way possible. From our home and commercial use, to even recreational use, the McKenzie River is the source of drinking water for more than 200,000 residents in Eugene and Springfield. In an email to Eugene Weekly, EWEB Water Resources Supervisor Susan Fricke writes, “The spill drill is helpful to keep our partnerships working well so that we’ll be ready in case of a real incident.”
Donahue says MWERS needs to be cognizant of wildland fires as well. “Within all the wildfires that we have, there’s also that component of potential spills and release because you can imagine all the infrastructure that goes into fighting wildland fires.” He adds, “So there’s the water quality threat associated with burning.”
Donahue says that if you are driving down any rural road or highway, something such as driving carefully when road conditions are poor and calling 911 when you have encountered a spill can make a world of difference. “You know we’re focused on these big spills, but there are so many things that all of us can do,” he says.