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Mississippi River Oil Spill, 1962–1963

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Volunteers Answer "Bird" Call - Newspaper photograph of a man washing off a duck

"Volunteers Answer 'Bird' Call," image from the Hastings Gazette Weekly, April 11, 1963, p. 3. Digitized with permission from the Hastings Star Gazette.

In 1962 and 1963, industrial accidents spilled 3.5 million gallons of oil into the Mississippi and Minnesota Rivers. The oil covered the Mississippi River from St. Paul to Lake Pepin, creating an ecological disaster and a demand to control water pollution.

On December 7, 1962, workers at the Richards Oil Plant in Savage forgot to open steam lines that heated oil pipes at the plant. On December 8, these pipes burst in low temperatures. They spilled one million gallons of petroleum into the Minnesota River. By January 24, 1963, the Department of Health traced downstream oil back to Richards Oil. Employees claimed only a small leak had occurred. The Department of Health requested that Richards Oil clean up the oil but could only take action if there was a public health emergency. Richards continued to drain oil until March.

On January 23, 1963, a storage tank collapsed at Honeymead Products Company. The accident violently spilled 3.5 million gallons of soybean oil into downtown Mankato. The company recovered some of the oil, but citizens drained 2.5 million gallons of it into nearby rivers.

In March, the ice on the Minnesota and Mississippi Rivers thawed, depositing oil between St. Paul and Lake Pepin. The Twin Cities dumped industrial waste into this area of the river and the oil was unnoticed. This changed on March 28, 1963. Residents noticed oil covered ducks struggling in the Mississippi River. Ice on Lake Pepin had dammed floating oil, creating a dangerous slick that coincided with the annual migration of waterfowl.

Citizens began rescuing and cleaning ducks but were overwhelmed by the number of birds affected. Pine Bend resident George Serbesku brought oil-covered birds to the capitol to ask for assistance. On March 30, 1963, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Management sent officers to rescue waterfowl. On March 31, 172 dead ducks were identified and 300 more were rescued for cleaning. As oil entered nesting areas, Governor Karl Rolvaag declared a state of emergency on April 3. No state organization existed to respond so two units of the National Guard were activated.

Public Health Services determined that birds could not see the colorless soybean oil. Exposed birds suffocated or had damaged feathers. This left them unable to move and vulnerable to hypothermia. Birds rescued for cleaning had only a ten percent survival rate. On April 6, the National Guard told Governor Rolvaag that they were struggling to remove oil from the Mississippi. Instead, the rescue effort began diverting oil from the marshes ducks nested in.

On April 8, 1963, the Coast Guard broke the ice on Lake Pepin so oil could disperse safely downriver. The spill caused 3,211 known duck deaths and damaged other bird, mammal, fish, and turtle populations. Water samples taken in June showed little biological activity in areas that had been healthy in April. Long-term damage to life was attributed to oil on the river bottom consuming oxygen as it decayed. Fish and insect eggs in the riverbed suffocated and large fish deaths occurred throughout the year.

Citizens were outraged by the damage done to riverbanks and wildlife. The government received thousands of dollars in donations to rehabilitate ducks, the primary victims of the tragedy. At the time industrial dumping into rivers was common. The only agency regulating water pollution was the Water Pollution Control Commission (WPCC). The WPCC was part of Public Health Services and could only act if a health emergency was created. Therefore, officials had to wait for permission from Honeymead and Richards to inspect their businesses. The sites of the spills could not be seen until April 6.

On January 30, 1963, Senator Gordon Rosenmeier, a conservationist, had introduced a bill giving the WPCC power to enforce rules preventing contamination of groundwater. The Rosenmeier Act was passed on May 22. Public demand resulted in an amendment to prohibit the storage of waste where it could enter state waters. The Rosenmeier Act sparked additional legislation on environmental protection. It also led to the creation of Pollution Control Agency in 1967. The Pollution Control Agency was the first state group to consider pollution an ethical concern.

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Robert A. Taft Sanitary Engineering Center, Report on Oil Spills Affecting the Minnesota and Mississippi Rivers, Winter of 1962–1963 Cincinnati: N.p., 1963.

"Blame Oil Slick for Ducks' Deaths," Mankato Free Press, April 1, 1963.

"3 Million Gallons Soybean Oil Spill When Tank Splits," Mankato Free Press, January 23, 1963.

Rigger, Don. "Edible Oils: Are They Really That Different?." 1997 International Oil Spill Conference, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, 1997.

"A Report on Pollution of the Upper Mississippi River and Major Tributaries." U.S. Department of the Interior, Federal Water Pollution Control Administration Great Lakes Region, Twin Cities- Upper Mississippi River Project, 1966.
National Service for Environmental Publication, Washington, D.C.
http://nepis.epa.gov/Exe/ZyPURL.cgi?Dockey=20016R37.txt
Description: Describes major pollution events and water quality from 1957–1965. Contains details about water quality and policy of the Mississippi near the Twin Cities before the spill.

Related Images

Volunteers Answer "Bird" Call - Newspaper photograph of a man washing off a duck
Volunteers Answer "Bird" Call - Newspaper photograph of a man washing off a duck
Cleansers wash off the soybean oil and fuel oil, but also remove the ducks' natural oil which keeps them buoyant in water. A few ducks got away from their rescuers after being cleaned, and drowned quickly after reaching the water. The ducks must be kept in captivity until summer, when they will molt and develop new feathers.
Cleansers wash off the soybean oil and fuel oil, but also remove the ducks' natural oil which keeps them buoyant in water. A few ducks got away from their rescuers after being cleaned, and drowned quickly after reaching the water. The ducks must be kept in captivity until summer, when they will molt and develop new feathers.

Turning Point

On April 3, 1963, Governor Rolvaag declares a state of emergency and activates the National Guard as an oil spill on the Mississippi River threatenes thousands of migrating ducks.

Chronology

December 8, 1962

Richards Oil Plant spills one million gallons of oil into the Minnesota River.

January 23, 1963

Honeymead Products Company spills 2.5 million gallons of soybean oil into rivers.

January 24, 1963

Department of Health traces downstream oil back to Richards Plant. Employees claim only a small leak occurred and no further inspections can be done.

January 30, 1963

Senator Gordon Rosenmeier introduces a bill allowing the state to stop industries from contaminating groundwater.

March 28, 1963

Pine Bend residents discover and rescue oil-covered ducks on the Mississippi River.

April 3, 1963

Governor Rolvaag activates two units of the National Guard to remove oil from the Mississippi as it begins to enter waterfowl nesting areas.

April 8, 1963

The Coast Guard breaks ice on Lake Pepin that had dammed oil on the Mississippi River. Oil disperses safely downstream and the crisis ends.

May 22, 1963

The Rosenmeier Act is passed. It allows the state to protect groundwater from industrial dumping and forbids the storage of waste where it may enter state waters.

May 18, 1967

The Pollution Control Agency is created by a bill sponsored by Senator Rosenmeier intended to strengthen the Rosenmeier Act.