An oil pipeline that spewed tens of thousands of gallons of crude oil into Montana’s Yellowstone River was temporarily shut down in May because of concerns over rising waters, and regulators last year warned Exxon Mobil of several safety violations along the line.
Exxon officials estimated that up to 1,000 barrels, or 42,000 gallons, spilled the night of July 1, before the flow from the damaged pipeline was stopped. The break near Laurel has fouled miles of riverbank and forced municipalities and irrigation districts to close intakes across eastern Montana.
The 12-inch pipeline was shut down in May because of concerns over the rising waters, Exxon Mobil Pipeline Co. president Gary Pruessing said.
The company decided to restart the line after examining its safety record and deciding the risk was low, he said.
The cause of the spill has not yet been determined, but company and government officials have speculated that high waters in recent weeks may have scoured the river bottom and exposed the pipeline to debris that could have damaged the pipe. Eastern Montana received record rainfall in the last month and also has a huge snowpack in the mountains that is melting, which has resulted in widespread flooding.
“We are very curious about what may have happened at the bottom of the river. We don’t have that yet,” Pruessing said.
The U.S. Department of Transportation, which oversees pipelines, last year issued a warning letter to Exxon Mobil 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.
The company was also cited for “probable violations” in a letter in February. The problems included inadequate pipeline markers in a housing development, a section of pipeline over a ditch covered with potentially damaging material and debris, vegetation in housing area covering a portion of line that prevented aerial inspections, and a line over a canal not properly protected against corrosion.
The company responded in a March letter that it had corrected all of the problems, most of them within a few weeks of being notified.
The 20-year-old pipeline was last inspected in 2009 using a robotic device that travels through the line looking for corrosion, dents or other problems, Pruessing said. Tests to determine the pipeline’s depth were taken in December, and at the time, the line appeared to be 5 to 8 feet below the riverbed, he said.
“It was completely in line with all regulatory requirements,” he said.
The spill is likely to amplify calls from some safety advocates and environmentalists for the government to impose more stringent regulations on the pipeline industry.
Dozens of federal workers along with U.S. Coast Guard personnel joined about 120 Exxon Mobil crew members in the cleanup and containment effort at the flooded river, the EPA said.
The Environmental Protection Agency said it can’t confirm any damage to wildlife or fish kills, but investigators were checking and the federal agency expected to know more Monday.
Crews have been putting absorbent material along short stretches of the river in Billings and near Laurel, but no attempts were made at capturing oil farther out. In some areas, oil flowed underneath booms.
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.
Pruessing said that flyovers had shown most of the damage from the weekend’s spill has been limited to a 10-mile stretch of river.
But Gov. Brian Schweitzer dismissed Pruessing’s estimate as premature. The Democratic governor said Exxon Mobil 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.”
EPA 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.
State officials earlier reported a 25-mile long slick headed downstream toward the Yellowstone’s confluence with the Missouri River, just across the Montana border in North Dakota. Authorities had no further reports on that slick, and Pruessing said the oil appeared to be evaporating and dissipating as the Yellowstone carries it downstream.
EPA on-scene coordinator Steve Way said fast flows along the flooding river were spreading the oil over a large area, making it harder to capture. But Way said that also could reduce damage to wildlife and cropland along the river.
The uncertainty frustrated riverfront property owners such as Linda Corbin, who worried that severe damage would be revealed as the flooding Yellowstone recedes in coming weeks. The stench of spilled crude was obvious in Corbin’s backyard — a reminder of the potential problems lurking beneath the surface of the nearby river.
“The smell has been enough to gag a maggot,” said Corbin, 64. “I just hope it doesn’t come too far because I’m on a well, and I won’t appreciate having to shower in Exxon oil.”
The spill was small compared to other oil-related disasters, such as the 11 million gallons leaked by the Exxon Valdez in Alaska in 1989. But officials said the pristine nature of the Yellowstone, along with its turbulent waters and riverside communities, complicated their cleanup efforts and attempts to assess the damage.
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