Friday, January 17, 2014

Mama, Don't Let Your Rivers Grow Up To Be Named "Elk"

"Elk River"

Has such a nice ring to it, don't you think?

You can just see the majestic animals, with their impressively massive antlers, standing beside a flowing body of clear water that ripples and burbles over smooth mid-stream rocks.  One after another, Papa, Mama, and Baby elk dip their mouths into the stream and drink deeply of the water that started days before as a single droplet falling from a melting snowpack.  That drop, and millions of its brethren, wended their way into rivulets, then creeks, then streams, gushing finally into the ice-cold confluence of all that run-off which our forebears, a hundred years or more ago, named The Elk River.

There are quite a few Elk Rivers in the United States, probably because there used to be huge and widespread herds of elk.  And in the days before printed maps and GPS directions, settlers tended to follow the example of Native Americans and name places as descriptively as possible.  Hence, the "river of many fish" or "Hash-tah-buh-lah" became the Ashtabula River to white settlers.  The creek in Virginia where cows gathered to cool off in the heat of the summer became "Cow Creek."  The "river with oysters" became Sisa'we'hak'hanna to the Lenapi Indians of Pennsylvania, or "Susquehanna" to later English settlers.  And, much less poetically, the place where large flocks of passenger pigeons once gathered outside Philadelphia became "Pigeontown."

The passenger pigeons have since flown into extinction on the bullets of near-sighted sportsmen who thought the creature whose flocks once darkened the midday sun would go unscathed despite ceaseless and uncontrolled hunting.  That same lack of forethought and control led to the extinction of Eastern Elk herds.

Maybe it's time to re-name all the Elk Rivers that are no longer visited by their namesakes, just as Pigeontown was re-named "Blue Bell" after the inn that was built at the site of the passenger pigeons' former home.

Chances are good, though, that the new names will not be as majestic as the old, if current conditions of the waters flowing in those rivers are used as a basis for the new descriptors.

Take, for example, the Elk River in the northern California mountains that has been fouled by sediment run-offs caused by over-timbering.  A more accurate name today would be Strangulation Stream.  Or perhaps Muddy Wash.

Then there is the Elk River in Montana, which has been fouled by selenium washed away from surface coal mines in British Columbia, Canada.  Given the devastating effects of the chemical on aquatic life in the river, Dead Fish Run is a more apt moniker.

Minnesota has its own Elk River re-naming candidate, which is fouled by run-off from the feedlots and agricultural industries now located along its banks upstream from Minneapolis and St. Paul.  Perhaps a name could be drawn from the government documents describing the pollution problems there: E-coliform Creek, perhaps.  Or maybe Phosphorus Flow.

Last but not least is the Elk River in West Virginia.  Like the Elk in Minnesota, this stream supplies drinking water to the largest population center in the state.  And like the Elk in Montana, it has been fouled because of coal mining.  Specifically, a chemical used to wash processed coal has leaked from a huge storage tank located on the banks of the river.  Unfortunately, that location put it upstream of the intakes used by West Virginia American Water Company to obtain drinking water for 300,000 customers in a nine-county area.

No entity which typically is responsible for guaranteeing the safety of drinking water knows enough about the chemical at issue--4-methylcyclohexane methanol ("Crude MCHM")--to state with any certainty when the water will be safe to use and drink again.  The 1 part per million figure that is being quoted by politicians and water company officials is not based on any science that a chemist, environmental engineer, or occupational safety specialist has ever accepted as probative.

Individuals who have acted on official assurances and actually bathed in or consumed water after being given the all-clear, have ended up in hospital emergency rooms with whole-body rashes, eyes swollen shut, nausea, vomiting, and other symptoms.  

Admittedly, the eyes of the nation and perhaps the world (and hopefully no terrorists) are on the water company officials here; politicians want to appear competent and in control.  But the desire to have life and business return to normal must not outstrip scientific reality.

Until water from the Elk is actually safe to use again, we should refrain from drinking it, lest we follow in the hooves of those majestic antlered beasts and disappear forever from the banks of their namesake river. 


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