The Spill Saga Continues

NWF’s Alexis Bonogofsky

On the evening of July 1, an Exxon Mobil pipeline burst in Montana, spilling about 42,000 gallons of crude oil into the flooded Yellowstone River. The spill occurred just 150 miles downstream of Yellowstone National Park, near the town of Laurel. A number of people near the initial spill site suffered symptoms from the toxic oil fumes, including difficulty breathing and lightheadedness, and were taken to local hospitals. However, several days after the spill, air quality tests showed no sign of benzene or hydrogen sulfide. Alan G. Jeffers, a spokesman for Exxon Mobil, said in a statement, “The testing we’ve done has not indicated any cause for concern for human health.”

Ranching and farming along the Yellowstone River was also dealt a severe blow due to the spill. The Exxon pipeline ruptured at the peak of the Yellowstone River’s flooding on Friday night, causing crude oil to be washed over hundreds of acres of land onto already flooded grasslands, much of that land agricultural. One Montana farmer, Jerry Williams, told Reuters that a good portion of his 800 acres, where he cultivates livestock, wheat, alfalfa and hay, was covered in oil after the spill. “All of our grasslands…have just thick, black crude stuck to all the grass, trees, low lands,” Williams said.

The Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration conducted several overflights to assess the extent of damage on the weekend following the spill, and concluded that oil deposits were observed “as far as 240 miles downstream” from the site of the rupture. Exxon, however, has only confirmed a 25-mile extent.

There is further concern regarding the safety of water drawn from the river, typically used for irrigation. Farmers have been advised to not take water from the river for irrigation, but many farmers, like Williams, rely heavily on the Yellowstone for that purpose. Without a regular or adequate supply of water while clean up is underway, many crops are likely to wither in the summer heat. Drinking water is also believed to be contaminated. Communities downstream of the spill that take drinking water from the river were told to shut off their intake valves.

Ronald Kendall, chairman of the department of environmental toxicology at Texas Tech University and head of its Institute of Environmental and Human Health, said of the spill, “A whole suite of organisms, from mink to herons to sturgeon to dragonflies, are going to be affected as waves of oil come through.” Kendall and other environmental experts said that it will take months, or even years, for the local ecosystems to recover from the crude oil.

What makes the oil spill even more problematic is the continued flooding, which has stalled the clean up crews brought in by Exxon. Crews have had difficulty accessing much of the deposited crude because of heavy water flow and dangerous debris being carried down the river by the flood. Oil booms have been a struggle to set up around slicks because the river is so active. Riverbanks are unstable and the crew is working in mosquito-infested areas.

“The Exxon clean up crew is working with the Environmental Protection Agency and the Coast Guard to combat the spill,” Frank Box, head of the rapid response team for Exxon Mobil, told the press, “Our job is to contain the source of the leak and monitor the spread. We’re following EPA’s advice.”

As the hindered clean up process continues, environmental groups have found renewed opportunity to push for tougher pipeline safety regulations. Many groups draw the comparison between the ruptured Exxon pipeline in Montana and a proposed U.S.-Canada pipeline project, known as Keystone XL, which would also cross the Yellowstone River on its way from oil sands in Canada to the Gulf Coast.

“It’s really important that the governor and legislators from Montana take a hard look at how similar the proposed Keystone XL pipeline is to this Exxon Mobil pipeline,” said Susan Casey-Lefkowitz, international program director of the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC). She explained how the pipeline safety rules currently on the table in Washington are especially relevant to future pipelines like Keystone XL. NRDC and other environmental groups believe that the ongoing complications and damage evident in the Yellowstone River spill should bring the message of oil pipelines’ instability home.

The company sponsoring the XL project has already proposed to build its pipeline 25 feet below the riverbed—much deeper than the pipeline that burst July 1, which was only built 6 to 12 feet below the riverbed. While the cause of that rupture is still unclear, many suspect that the extreme swelling of the flood may have been a significant factor in disrupting the pipe.