Oil Drip City: Protect the playa from your undercarriage!

2007's "Big Rig Jig" by Mike Ross. Photo by Tobin on Flickr.
2007’s “Big Rig Jig” by Mike Ross. Photo by Tobin on Flickr.

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).
A Restoration worker prepares to dig up an oil spill. Photo by Vertumnus.
A Restoration worker prepares to dig up an oil spill. Photo by Vertumnus.

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.

Burning Man is a Leave No Trace Event.

There is no garbage collection service at Burning Man. We are the largest Leave No Trace event in the world.  This means that every participant is responsible for making the greatest possible effort to leave the Black Rock Desert in the same condition (or better!) than it was in when you arrived. That includes picking up Matter Out Of Place, packing out all your own trash, not polluting the playa and avoiding burn scars and oil drips.

Leave No Trace is one of the Ten Principles guiding our community. Our community respects the environment. We are committed to leaving no physical trace of our activities wherever we gather. We clean up after ourselves and endeavor, whenever possible, to leave such places in a better state than when we found them.

About the author: The Hun

The Hun

The Hun, also known as J.H. Fearless, has been blogging for Burning Man (and many other outlets) since 2005, which is also the year she joined the BRC DPW on a whim that turned out to be a ten-year commitment. Since then she's won some awards for blogging, built her own creative business, and produced some of the Burning Blog's most popular stories and series. She co-created a grant-funded art piece, "Refoliation," in 2007, and stood next to it watching the Man burn on Monday night during a full lunar eclipse. She considers that, in many ways, to have been the symbolic end of Burning Man that was. The Hun lives in Reno with DPW Shade King, Quiet Earp. You may address her as "The Hun" or "Hun". If you call her "Honey" she reserves the right to cut you.

3 Comments on “Oil Drip City: Protect the playa from your undercarriage!

  • Kallisti Dawn says:

    grateful to the community member who shared this on our public messaging board(s) = clean burn education + knowing is half the battle

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  • Magpie says:

    Great way to ensure no oil from your engine hits the playa is to take a large piece of cardboard with you. Opened up grocery boxes, (making sure no stray staples or tape go out to BRC of course!) are often big enough. Drive your car on to it so its anchored by both tires. That should put it beneath the engine on most vehicles.

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  • If you want to put a big dent in vehicles that leak, start with vehicles that have a STAFF sticker on them.

    Ask the guy who walked through my camp doing an informal poll of where leaking vehicles are located.

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