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How Do You Decontaminate a Polar Bear?

Greenpeace protest on the St. Johns Bridge with protestors dangling from the Bridge
First morning of the Greenpeace protest with volunteers in place on the St. Johns Bridge.

Last week was a hot one in St. Johns. The temperatures exceeded 100 and the St. Johns Bridge, which never takes a bad photo, exceeded the usual expectations of beauty with the addition of dangling Greenpeace volunteers, pennants waving in the breeze, and blue lights shining through the night. If the Bridge were a woman, she would have been Halle Berry dressed for the Oscars.

I walked down each morning and each evening to see and to marvel. I work from home, designing websites for small businesses and nonprofit organizations. My skills are in demand, and it’s not often that I take time during the work day for a walk. Still, for this event, I took the time.

I went even though I am conflicted. Yes, I walked there in sandals made, at least in part, from petroleum. Yes, I own a car. Yes, my home uses oil to heat. Of course, I am conflicted.

Because I am conflicted, I posted no opinions, only photos on my Facebook page. I wanted to share the moment with friends and acquaintances, whatever their opinion. What I discovered is that those opposed like to rant. Those in favor just “like.”

The St. Johns Bridge at night with Greenpeace protestors, flying pennants and lights.
The “Halle Berry shot” of the St. Johns Bridge: Late evening with pennants flying and blue lights of Greenpeace volunteers.

The rants were about the protestors paddling kayaks made from petroleum. (Is there another kind of kayak?) Or about the dangling Greenpeace volunteers using ropes made from nylon instead of hemp. (Isn’t hemp illegal to grow in the United States?) But, mostly the rants were about the inconvenience of closing the beautiful St. Johns bridge at rush hour and the extended commute. (Couldn’t Shell Corporation’s tax subsidized army have picked a different time of day? Or, was that intentional?)

We live in the Petroleum Age. Like the Bronze Age or the Iron Age, this commodity defines us. Our clothing is made from petroleum, our kayaks are made from petroleum, our food is transported to our homes with the aid of petroleum. Still, I am conflicted.

Solar panels at Waterlink Web
Solar panels at Waterlink Web.

Conflicted enough, that a few years ago my husband and I went to the expense of installing an array of solar panels. Now our roof helps reduce the electric bill, but in the winter we still burn oil.

The protest, of course, was not about any oil, but about oil drilled in the Arctic. The Greenpeace volunteers and elderly kayakers were attempting to prevent the MSV Fennica, a multipurpose icebreaker and platform supply vessel, from heading to the Arctic to assist Shell corporation in oil exploration. They were not there to stop some other boat going to some other place.

People gathered under the St. Johns Bridge watching the Portland fire department and US Coast Guard remove the Greenpeace volunteers from the bridge.
People gathered under the St. Johns Bridge watching the Portland fire department and US Coast Guard remove the Greenpeace volunteers from the bridge.

Oil drilling in the Arctic carries additional risks. The Department of the Interior recently concluded that drilling in the remote Chukchi Sea in the Arctic carries a 75 percent chance of causing a major oil spill. Major is defined as more than 1,000 barrels of oil. Most oil cleanup tools don’t work among big chunks of floating ice. The Arctic is also stormy, foggy, and dark much of the year, which makes assessing a spill and operating remediation equipment more difficult. There also aren’t enough basic amenities to conduct a cleanup, like ports, airports, and hotels to house workers.

As I viewed the St. Johns bridge with her waving pennants and dangling protestors, and the Willamette River below decorated with orange kayaks, I imagined an oil spill in the Arctic. I’m a practical person and would rather deal with concrete technical details than abstract ideas. So, the question that came to me was, how do you decontaminate a polar bear?

I thought on it awhile. I can imagine how to wash and clean an oil encrusted bird, sea turtle or other reasonably small creature. But, how do you clean a polar bear? I imagined a polar bear, white fur covered in black oil, dragging itself onto an ice flow. Could we tranquilize it? No. In the moments it took for the drug to take affect, the polar bear would return to the ocean and then drown.

Eventually, like I always do, when researching some technical detail for coding a website, I Googled it. This is the answer.


Well, actually, there is no answer. There is no description available of how to decontaminate a polar bear covered in oil. The best link I found, the one listed above, just leads to a sweet description of polar bear behavior. Apparently they like to be clean and dry. Dirty and wet fur is a poor insulator. Apparently they will feed for 20–30 minutes and then head for open water to spend up to 15 minutes washing off. Apparently they clean themselves with snow. Apparently, mother polar bears lick their cubs to keep them clean.

The day will come when we have harnessed a different source of energy. Maybe it will be solar. Maybe it will be hydrogen. Maybe it will be nuclear. Maybe it will be the oils from algae that will power our transportation and heat our homes.

In the meantime, do we really want to drill in the arctic?

Greenpeace Versus Fennica at St. Johns Bridge

The final three minutes of the protest under the St. Johns Bridge.

A couple of women came to protest the protestors … calling for the Fennica to overrun the kayaks. At the beginning of the video a man can be heard calling them out.

By Mary Ann Aschenbrenner

Mary Ann is a website designer and developer working with small businesses and nonprofit organizations. She works and lives in St. Johns, a neighborhood in North Portland.

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