Hey! Are you hitchhiking to Black Rock City this year, then sleeping in a tent with no cookstove?
If you’re bringing any type of liquid to the playa this year (even cooler water, but especially motor oil), you need to be aware of how spills affect the desert. Matter Out of Place isn’t limited to wood chips and cigarette butts. It encompasses anything that doesn’t occur naturally on the playa surface. Spills and drips are everyone’s responsibility:
- Your car, RV, mutant vehicle or motorcycle can leak oil and fluids.
- Your kitchen and shower can leak cooking fuel and gray water.
- Your black water tank (ew) can (ew) all over the (ew).
If you spill or drip, you must clean it up! Here’s why, and how.
For more than a decade, the Bureau of Land Management has been paying attention to pollutants—particularly motor oil—that are left behind by Burning Man’s thousands of vehicles. Those pollutants soak into the playa, resurfacing during rains and potentially affecting the seasonal lake that covers the hardpan during winter.
In 2012, the BLM released its Environmental Assessment of Burning Man’s impact on the Black Rock Desert. One of the major points of concern was those pesky drips and spills. Over the years, they can really add up to a significant pollution threat. In fact, Burning Man’s polluting effect could be pretty bad, if it wasn’t for the dedication of every member of our community. Including YOU.
Burning Man isn’t the only group that uses the Black Rock Desert recreationally; It’s in use throughout the year by vehicles of all types. “What happens with drippage, trash disposal and camp fires during Burning Man is nothing different that what is happening on all public lands and at camp sites,” says Karen Dallett, Executive Director of the non-profit Friends of Black Rock organization. “It’s simply compacted and has a huge accumulative effect with 60,000 people being in one place at the same time.”
In other words, it’s not our behavior that makes us the Black Rock Desert’s biggest potential polluter; it’s our numbers. Our behavior is what keeps us from causing major pollution.
The BLM backs this up, and is asking us, as a community, to continue taking precautions against those oil drips. Every large group using the playa is required to take similar precautions, but in our case it matters more.
Of course, oil drips and gray water spills aren’t something that Burning Man can really enforce. This one comes down to you, your friends and campmates. It’s up to you to modify your behavior and lower our collective impact on the desert ecosystem. Are you up to it?
I thought you might be! Here’s what you can do.
How to Prevent Drips and Spills
- Get a tune-up on that car before you come out to the playa!
- Bring an oil pan or thick piece of cardboard or some carpet to lay under for every vehicle and RV, whether or not you think it leaks. Put it under the vehicle as soon as you park, and don’t forget to weight it down!
- Make a camp plan for anything that can spill, from gray water to bacon grease. Plan ahead for packing that splashy, gross stuff out!
What to Do if Something Spills
- Clean it up!
- Bring a Shovel and Bucket to scoop up any nastiness!
- Dispose of polluted soil with other hazardous waste. Don’t you wish you’d avoided spilling it in the first place?
A final note: Every year, somebody’s RV water tank “spills” its contents into the soil. The DPW Playa Restoration crew has the great privilege of discovering these sites and cleaning them up, sometimes by digging out all the affected soil and carting it away. If you’re reading this, you probably won’t be an offender. But if you happen to have a spill, please let Earth Guardians or the Rangers know and do what you can to clean it up. And if you see your neighbor emptying something they shouldn’t onto the playa surface, please kindly let them know why their action could have a negative effect on Burning Man’s future use of public lands.