Pollution a worry as Missouri River floods

Associated Press

BISMARCK, N.D. (AP) — As the flooding Missouri River overflows onto surrounding land it is picking up everything from pianos to coal, but experts say the high volume of water and the rapid current will help in minimizing long-term pollution.

"The solution for pollution is dilution," Lance Yohe, executive director of the Red River Basin Commission, told The Bismarck Tribune in a story published Monday. That river basin has seen major flooding the past three years.

Heavy snowmelt and spring rains have swelled the Missouri River this year, and dams are releasing record amounts of water. Along the river, oil wells have been capped and feedlots and power plants have taken measures to guard against pollution, helping prevent major contamination, said Dennis Fewless, director of the state Health Department's water quality division. Keith Demke, Bismarck's utility operations director, said water plants are equipped to filter contaminants such as pesticides, fertilizers and even coal.

"Plants up and down the river have been getting a lot of coal in ... water intake screenings," he said. "Veins of coal are spread throughout this whole area, and the river is eroding the banks where it is."

The Missouri is in a better situation than the Red because water is not rolling through as many miles of flat farmland, Yohe said.

"You're getting good, clean water from the (Rocky Mountain) snowpack, and it's moving fast, so it is picking up stuff, but it's such a high volume of water," so pollution is minimized, he said.

The long-term effects mainly come at the river's end. Yohe said the amount of phosphorus and nitrogen in the water leads to algae growth, which sucks up oxygen and prevents other plant and animal life — something that has been seen in the Red River-fed Lake Winnipeg in Canada. Demke said the same substances in the Missouri River will have less of an effect because even the lakes fed by the river have water constantly flowing.

As for the propane tanks, boat docks and other items including a piano and a hot tub that have been spotted floating down the river, officials decide on a case-by-case basis whether to venture onto the rushing water for a retrieval operation.

"There will be a risk assessment made of the danger the object presents versus the risk of sending someone to go get it," said Bob Timian, chief game warden for the North Dakota Game and Fish Department, one of the agencies involved in removing debris. "We're not going to send someone out there for a nuisance."