August 13, 2009

ExxonMobil’s guilty plea — a step toward protecting migratory birds?

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Exxon Mobil Corp. pleaded guilty today in the deaths of 85 protected migratory birds, most of which died after landing in or ingesting oily waste in the firm’s natural gas well reserve pits and wastewater storage facilities, reports the Associated Press. A violation of the international Migratory Bird Treaty Act, ExxonMobil  has agreed to pay $600,000 in fines, or around $7,000 per bird.

The battle between waste storage sites and migratory bird routes is a national dilemma, with major bird flyways stretching up and down the continent and spanning the globe. While the birds that died under ExxonMobil’s watch perished in drilling and production facilities in Colorado, Kansas, Oklahoma, Texas and Wyoming, there are similar tales panning out across the West. (Readers: We’re working to understand the condition of the Pacific Flyway. If you know about this, please e-mail me at nwalker (at) invw.org.)

In Coeur d’Alene, Idaho, residents and tribe members have been battling state and federal agencies, who plan to use a local repository as a dumping site for nearly 40,000 truckloads of soil contaminated with heavy metals, a byproduct of a century of mining pollution, reports Becky Kramer of The Spokesman-Review. Besides concerns about storing the toxic waste in an area that floods regularly and fear that the 30-feet high dumps may obstruct the views of Cataldo Mission, a National Historic Landmark, the site resides just 3,000 feet from a river and a thriving wetland. For the migratory birds that travel through the region semiannually, this is a big uh-oh.

And in Washington, the Hanford Nuclear Reservation, which straddles the Columbia River and is already host to the nation’s most-expensive pollution cleanup, is also being considered as a potential toxic storage facility – this time, for mercury, reports Scott Learn of The Oregonian. Not surprisingly, the Hanford site is located in the heart of the Pacific Flyway, a major route for migratory birds. I wonder if this tidbit will make it into their environmental impact statement.

Flyways span thousands of miles, connecting counties, cities, states and even countries. This means decisions made in one location that affect migratory birds can have consequences in others. While ExxonMobil’s fine amounts to less than a slap on the wrist — roughly equaling what the company makes in 20 minutes — maybe it will have a ripple effect on the planning of future toxic waste sites elsewhere.

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