Oil found along shoreline downriver from Montana spill

BILLINGS, Mont. — Teams tallying damage from an Exxon Mobil Corp. oil spill into the Yellowstone River have found contamination on roughly 60 percent of shoreline areas inspected downstream from the pipeline break, state and federal environmental regulators said Tuesday.

The tally offers one of the first glimpses into the scope of the spill after weeks of high water slowed access into many fouled areas. It was first released to the Associated Press by the Montana Department of Environmental Quality and later confirmed by the federal Environmental Protection Agency.

Just over 40 percent of shoreline areas inspected to date showed light to very light oil, DEQ director Richard Opper said. Seventeen percent had moderate oil. Just 1 percent of inspected areas were heavily contaminated.

Almost all those areas were within the first 30 miles downstream from the spill.

The July 1 spill, which came amid flooding from mountain snowmelt, dumped up to 1,200 barrels of oil, or 54,000 gallons, into the Yellowstone near Laurel, state officials say. Exxon Mobil says it lost 1,000 barrels.

The investigation into what caused the pipeline to break could take months. Meanwhile, more than 800 cleanup workers and support personnel are involved in mopping up the spill.

Richard Opper says teams of federal, state and Exxon Mobil workers have now inspected about half of the riverbank and islands between Laurel and Lockwood, where most of the damage occurred.

Close to the spill site, the number of areas with moderate oil rose to 34 percent within the first 10 miles downstream. Moderate impacts were defined as patchy to broken oil and oil covering 25 to 60 percent of plants.

“That is the area of the greatest impact we’re looking at, and so it gives you an idea of the degree of impact we’re seeing,” Opper said. “I’m glad it wasn’t worse. But it’s still a huge problem for landowners, both private and public, and we’ll do what we can to address this as efficiently as we can.”

Environmental Protection Agency officials said the length of shoreline segments varied, so the percentage of segments with oil cannot be translated into a mileage figure for oiled riverbank.

Exxon Mobil last week finished initial work on the first four of dozens of cleanup sites scattered along the riverbank and stretching across fields that were flooding when the pipeline broke.

The Environmental Protection Agency set an early September deadline for Exxon Mobil to finish the cleanup. But agency officials have said that’s not a hard date and the company will continue working as long as it takes for the job to meet Montana’s stringent cleanup standards.

Dan Kennedy, a Republican state lawmaker from Laurel whose river front property was among the first hit by oil., said Tuesday that crews had already removed crude from the pools of floodwater that were on his property and dug up oil-stained vegetation from his land.

“They’re on track to take care of this deal,” Kennedy said. “There’s no sheening on the water. There’s no sludge left.”

Kennedy owns livestock that he relocated because of the spill. He was unsure when they might be able to return, but added that Exxon Mobil had covered the move and was settling with other property owners for their hay and other crop losses.

State officials said Tuesday they had checked a site where oil was reported 240 miles downstream near the town of Terry and no oil was found. Discoloration in the water apparently was caused by a side stream entering the river.

The EPA has said the farthest downstream that oil has been confirmed was near Custer, 72 miles from the spill site in Laurel.

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Rich Landers

Rich Landers

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