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Scope of damage unclear on Yellowstone River

MONDAY, JULY 4, 2011

An ExxonMobil contractor cleans up oil along the banks of the Yellowstone River in Billings on Sunday. The company said its pipeline spilled about 1,000 barrels of crude into the Yellowstone on Saturday. (Associated Press)
An ExxonMobil contractor cleans up oil along the banks of the Yellowstone River in Billings on Sunday. The company said its pipeline spilled about 1,000 barrels of crude into the Yellowstone on Saturday. (Associated Press)

Schweitzer calls for close check of area

LAUREL, Mont. – Authorities struggled Sunday to gauge the environmental and crop damage from tens of thousands of gallons of oil that spilled into the Yellowstone River, as Montana’s governor criticized ExxonMobil for downplaying the possible scope of the disaster.

A break in a company pipeline near Laurel fouled miles of riverbank and forced municipalities and irrigation districts to close intakes across Eastern Montana.

ExxonMobil brought in more cleanup workers to mop up crude at three sites along the flooded river that were coated with thick globs of crude. Yet there was no clear word on how far the damage extended along a scenic river famous for its fishing and vital to farmers who depend on its water for their crops.

Environmental Protection Agency spokeswoman Sonya Pennock said its staff had spotted oil at least 40 miles downstream. There were other reports of oil as far as 100 miles away, near the town of Hysham.

After ExxonMobil Pipeline Co. President Gary Pruessing said flyovers had shown most of the damage was limited to a 10-mile stretch of river, Gov. Brian Schweitzer dismissed the claim as premature.

The Democratic governor said ExxonMobil needed to get more personnel to inspect the situation close-up. He also slammed Pruessing’s statement to reporters that no injured wildlife had been found.

“For somebody to say at this early stage that there’s no damage to wildlife, that’s pretty silly,” Schweitzer said. “The Yellowstone River is important to us. We’ve got to have a physical inspection of that river in small boats – and soon.”

ExxonMobil estimated that up to 1,000 barrels, or 42,000 gallons, spilled Saturday before the flow from the damaged pipeline was stopped. An EPA representative said only a small fraction of the spilled oil was likely to be recovered.

The U.S. Department of Transportation, which oversees pipelines, last year issued a warning letter to ExxonMobil that cited seven safety violations along the ruptured Silvertip pipeline. Two of the warnings faulted the company for its emergency response and pipeline corrosion training.

Transportation department spokeswoman Patricia Klinger said the company has since responded to the warnings and the case was closed.

Crews were putting absorbent material along short stretches of the river in Billings and near Laurel, but no attempts were made at capturing oil farther out.

Property owners said they could not wait long for Exxon to clean up, particularly in agricultural areas where crops and grazing pastures were at risk. The Yellowstone River also is popular among fishermen, though areas farther upriver from the spill are more heavily trafficked.

Workers first became aware of a problem with the pipeline when pressure readings dropped early Saturday.



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