By BECKY W. EVANS
In my first summer break as a college educator, I’ve used my flexible schedule to take part in some unique opportunities for mentoring students in non-traditional settings. Two weeks after grading my last exam for Lasell College, I traveled to the flood-ravaged Crow Reservation in southeastern Montana. Here, I participated in the Eco-Stewards Program, which helps young adults explore the connections between environmental stewardship and their faith. As a journalist, my role was to teach students multimedia storytelling skills so they could document the stories of the people and landscapes of Big Sky Country.
My crash course in digital photography and audio recording recruited a handful of students curious about multimedia journalism. Each morning, we met to discuss strategies for asking compelling questions, photographing defining moments and capturing descriptive sound. At the end of the day, it was a pleasure to unpack the treasures the students had collected with my crude recording equipment and bottom-of-the-line digital camera. The resulting 8-minute multimedia slideshow is well worth your time.
Since returning from Montana, I have served as editor of the Eco-Stewards blog, helping students craft reflections about the Montana program and their summer internships at organic farms and summer camps. Now that my students are scattered around the country, we use email to discuss revisions and exchange drafts. Communicating virtually about the writing process has its challenges, but it’s a skill I acquired this winter while teaching my first online writing course for Boston University.
In addition to editing blog posts, my school-free summer has allowed more time for reading them. A favorite on my summer blog reading list is Pedal Posts from the Road, which chronicles the biking adventures of New England Climate Summer riders as they travel from town to town to support and promote community efforts to reduce fossil fuel consumption. I’ve witnessed how they are living out these values: I offered one of the riders a lift in my car when I heard her bicycle was in the shop, but she declined, saying she was dedicated to a carbon-free summer and would walk instead. She and her friends from Team MAss Acceleration did, however, accept my offer of showering facilities. So, during their week-long stay in Waltham, they biked to my apartment one afternoon for some well-earned showers and naps. While the college students refueled with pretzels and cookies, we traded blogging tips and discussed the challenges of educating a divided public about climate change. At the end of their visit, I hopped on my commuter bike and joined MAss Acceleration (see their team photo here) for a short, peaceful ride along the Charles River.
The last week of July brought me to another river– the Connecticut– where I spent three days paddling, swimming, cooking and camping in New Hampshire and Vermont with a group of high-schoolers from two summer camps. Our 30-mile stretch of the Connecticut (which I learned comes from the Mohegan word “Quinnehtukqut” meaning “beside the long tidal river”) afforded bucolic views of dairy farms, cornfields and covered bridges and abundant wildlife sightings: bald eagles, belted kingfishers and bank swallows in the blue skies above and water lilies, juvenile fish and snails in the sunlit waters below. At the beginning of our journey, I had led a discussion about some of the threats to the health of the river ecosystem, among them: human waste from sewage overflows; pesticides, animal waste and other agricultural runoff; chemical waste from local industries; and the Vermont Yankee nuclear plant, where a radioactive fish was just found nine miles upstream from the plant.
While paddling down the Connecticut, my thoughts returned to my earlier summer adventures in Montana, where rivers played a major theme. The flooding of the Little Bighorn River in June– the result of unseasonable, heavy rains– paralyzed Crow Agency for days, closing highways and bridges, damaging homes and businesses, and shuttering the hospital. The high waters also canceled our Eco-Stewards canoe trip down the Little Bighorn.
Though the waters receded somewhat during my two-week visit, we kept a wary eye on the snow-capped mountains in the western sky, fearing that warm temperatures would melt the snow cap and send the rivers surging anew. The swollen banks of the Yellowstone River were noticeable as we drove out to Yellowstone National Park on Interstate 90, which hugs the river. On our return trip, we picnicked on a bend in the river with views of the still snow-covered Absaroka Range to the west and a stand of cottonwood trees to the east.
A few weeks after our picnic, when I had returned to Massachusetts, the news media reported a major oil spill on the Yellowstone River in Laurel, a town about 60 miles east of our picnic site. An Exxon Mobil pipeline buried below the river had ruptured and dumped an estimated 42,000 gallons of crude oil into the river. The oil spread at least 30 miles downstream, fouling the shoreline, killing fish and oiling birds, among them a bald eagle and a Cooper’s hawk. As an environmental journalist who covers oil spills, I wish I had still been in Montana when the pipe burst. As it was, I was not as fortunate as Matthew Brown, an environment reporter for the Associated Press who had planned a Yellowstone fishing trip for the Fourth of July weekend. When he learned of the July 1 spill, he scrapped his plans and headed to the scene to question Exxon officials and interview affected residents. His aggressive coverage won him a $500 reporting award for the AP’s “Beat of the Week.”
Though I missed my opportunity to cover the Yellowstone oil spill, there is still plenty of reporting to be done on an oil spill closer to home: the Bouchard 120 oil spill in Buzzards Bay. In May, a federal appeals court issued a major ruling related to the spill, which dumped up to 98,000 gallons of oil (more than twice as much as the Yellowstone spill) into this productive estuary on Massachusetts’ southeastern coast. I’m planning to spend the rest of my “summer school” researching the impact of this ruling, so let me get you up to speed.
In April 2003, the Tug Evening Tide was towing the Bouchard 120 oil barge up Buzzards Bay, when the barge drifted out of the shipping lanes and struck a submerged reef, tearing a twelve-foot wide gash in the bottom of its hull. For days, thick, No. 6 fuel oil bound for a Cape Cod power plant leaked instead into the fragile estuary, polluting more than 90 miles of shoreline. Cormorants, loons and terns were among the feathered casualties.
A year after the spill, state legislators passed a score of safety provisions– known as the 2004 Massachusetts Oil Spill Prevention Act–aimed at preventing another devastating spill in Buzzards Bay. One of the provisions required both single-hulled barges (such as the Bouchard 120) and double-hulled barges carrying 6,000 or more barrels of oil to hire tug escorts to guide them up the long, narrow bay. The tugboat, operated by a federally-licensed pilot with knowledge of the shallow waters, would escort the barge safely from the mouth of the Westport River to the Cape Cod Canal. In the event of an emergency, such as a barge drifting out of the shipping lanes, this additional tugboat would be on hand to push the barge back on course. Sound reasonable? Stay with me.
Two years after the state law was enacted, it was challenged in court by the Coast Guard and the oil transport industry. A federal judge ruled in their favor, determining that the Coast Guard had federal supremacy when setting regulations for oil transport in Buzzards Bay. The following year, 2007, the Coast Guard issued its own safety rules for oil transport in the bay. The Coast Guard rule required tug escorts for single-hulled barges, but not for double-hulled barges. The agency argued that double-hulled barges were less likely than single-hulled barges to rupture if they ran aground given their added layer of protection. In the following years, Massachusetts battled the Coast Guard and oil transport industry in court, trying to reinstate its tougher protections for Buzzards Bay.
Now we return to the recent appeals court decision. Here, the court ruled that the Coast Guard, when it decided that double-hulled barges should be exempt from tug escorts, failed to conduct an environmental impact statement as required under the National Environmental Policy Act. Now, the Coast Guard must show proof that no environmental harm will result if double-hulled barges navigate the bay without tug escorts. While the Coast Guard conducts its study, the 2004 state law is back in place. And so far, double-hulled barges are adapting. “To our knowledge, all units have complied with the newly reinstated state requirements and have hired a tug escort,” according to Edmund Coletta, spokesman for the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection.
Becky W. Evans teaches writing and communication courses at Lasell College and Boston University. She is a freelance multimedia journalist who covers the environment, commercial fisheries and immigration while living in Massachusetts and traveling abroad. She is passionate about teaching journalism in both traditional and non-traditional settings.