Exxon oil spill on Yellowstone River disrupts farms

Governor Brian Schweitzer (left - click for larger image) vowed on Tuesday to cling to Exxon Mobil like "the smell on a skunk" for as long as it takes to get the company to clean up a weekend oil spill that fouled an otherwise pristine stretch of the Yellowstone River in Montana.

Governor Schweitzer on Yellowstone Oil Spill

A 12-inch Exxon pipeline ruptured on Friday night about 150 miles downstream from Yellowstone National Park near the town of Laurel,
Montana, southwest of Billings, dumping up to 1,000 barrels, or 42,000 gallons, of crude oil into the flood-swollen river. The break near Billings could be related to the river's high water level, officials said.

Although the spill is downstream from Yellowstone National Park and the fertile Yellowstone fly-fishing grounds, some officials worried it could harm the tourism industry, which draws 11 million visitors a year to a state with a population of just 980,000.

"We take our rivers very seriously here in Montana," said Governor Schweitzer, a soil scientist who planned to visit the spill site Tuesday. "We will not allow this catastrophe to affect the $400-million trout industry in Montana. Exxon will be expected to pay for the cleanup so that "everybody along that river is made whole," he said.

Toxic fumes from the oil overcame a number of people who reported breathing problems and dizziness and were taken to local hospitals. But
state and federal officials on Tuesday said they lacked a tally of health problems or the number of riverside homes that were evacuated after the accident.

On Tuesday, July 5th, Montana's governor declared a state of emergency related to the ruptured pipeline that caused crude oil spill
into the Yellowstone River. The declaration applies to Yellowstone, Treasure, Rosebud, Custer, Prairie, Dawson and Richland counties, all of which have been affected by the spill just before midnight Friday. ExxonMobil has reported 750 to 1,000 barrels (32,000 to 42,000 gallons) of oil escaped into river in Laurel, about 16 miles southwest of Billings.

The longest undammed river in the United States, the Yellowstone eventually leads into the Missouri River, one of the biggest rivers in the United States.

"The investigation into this incident is ongoing," said Transportation
Secretary Ray LaHood. "When companies are not living up to our safety standards, we will take action. We will continue to work with the EPA, while ensuring that those responsible are held accountable."

Federal documents show it took Exxon Mobil nearly twice as long as it publicly disclosed to fully seal a pipeline that spilled roughly 1,000 barrels of crude oil into the Yellowstone River.

Details about the company's response to the Montana pipeline (see location of spill in map at lower right) burst emerged late Tuesday as the Department of Transportation ordered the
company bury the duct deeper beneath the riverbed, where it is buried 5 to 8 feet underground to deliver 40,000 barrels of oil a day to a refinery in Billings. The company must also conduct a risk assessment on the 69-mile long pipeline where it crosses any waterway. It must then submit a restart plan before operations can resume.

The federal agency's records indicate the pipeline was not fully shut down for 56 minutes after the break occurred Friday near Laurel. That's longer than the 30 minutes that company officials claimed Tuesday in a briefing (left) with federal officials and Gov. Brian Schweitzer.

An Exxon Mobil spokesman said the longer time span was based on information provided to the agency by the company and the discrepancy might have come about because Exxon Mobil Pipeline Co. President Gary Pruessing was speaking without any notes in front of him when he addressed Schweitzer.

"Clearly our communication with the regulator (DOT) is the one that we've got precision on," spokesman Alan Jeffers said.

It was not the first time the company offered clarification of its
response and assessment of the spill. A day earlier, the company acknowledged under political pressure that the leak's impact could extend far beyond a 10-mile stretch of the river it initially said was the most affected area. The company had earlier downplayed government officials' assertions that damage was spread over dozens of miles.

Exxon Oil Spill Prompts Evacuations

Residents are worried about the impact of the oil spill on their downstream fisheries as well as on the farming and ranching land that is being impacted because of the current high level of the water. When the water begins to recede the oil will remain on their land, impacting their operations until the oil is completely cleaned up.

One local, goat rancher Alexis Bonogofsky pulled on waders and slogged through the oily residue at the bottom of her pasture, snapping photographs of oily grass and water. She commented that "Places where the water has gone down the soil is shiny, there's residue oil and you can see where the grass is already dying. "

She also works for the National Wildlife Federation and went on to say that "I'm really concerned about the wildlife,". "I've seen Canada geese try to take off and they can't get lift because of oil on their wings."

She and husband Mike Scott, 31, who works for the Sierra Club, were trying to organize landowners to demand more transparency and accountability from Exxon. She faulted local public health officials for failing to conduct their own reports and relying instead on Exxon.

"Exxon says they are monitoring it, but we don't have access to that data," Bonogofsky said.

"We're sort of in limbo here," Scott added. "We have been spending a lot of time in the soil, and our livestock has. Nobody is telling us what we could have been exposed to."

Exxon said water pipes for municipal drinking supplies to the city of Billings and suburban Lockwood were reopened after a precautionary shutdown for a few hours just after the spill.

But Governor Schweitzer said dozens of landowners have been
affected so far and that a "great deal of oil" had washed into low-lying areas along the banks of the Yellowstone.

"These riparian, lowland areas, these wetlands are the health of these rivers," he said, adding that the full extent and scope of contamination remains to be seen. He
said trace amounts of oil already had been swept hundreds of miles downstream into the Missouri River and beyond.

About 350 cleanup personnel were working along the Yellowstone on Tuesday, using oil-absorbent materials to blot up as much crude as possible, according to Exxon and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, which is overseeing the operation.

Exxon workers labor to clean up spill

The spill wreaked immediate havoc on ranching and farming
operations along the Yellowstone, the longest river without a dam in the United States.

Cathy Williams, who raises livestock, wheat, alfalfa and hay with her husband Jerry on some 800 acres of land around Laurel, said high water from the river has washed oil across much of their property.

"It was the night the river peaked, so the river water was flooded all over the place, and that brought oil all over both ranches," she said. "All of our grasslands ... have just thick, black crude stuck to all the grass, trees, low lands."

Williams said their spring wheat crop and alfalfa are both in need of
irrigation, but farmers in the area were advised not to take water from the river for the time being. Drinking supplies also are in limbo, she said.

"We get all our drinking water from our wells and for our animals," Williams said. "All the groundwater, I assume, is probably contaminated. We just don't know."

The Silvertip pipeline normally carries about 40,000 barrels of crude
per day from the Montana-Wyoming border north to Billings, connecting to two of the state's three major refineries. Exxon said it was forced to cut back operations at its Billings refinery.

Governor Schweitzer said he has told Exxon and federal agencies overseeing the spill response that the state alone will decide when the cleanup is done.

"The state of Montana is going to stay on this like the smell on a skunk," he stated by telephone as he toured areas hit by the spill.

The EPA began water-quality sampling on Sunday, but those results have yet to be released. Environmental experts said it will likely take months, even years, for the ecosystem to rebound from the influx of crude.

"It will be unclear even next spring as to what kind of recovery has taken place," said Ronald Kendall, chairman of the department of
environmental toxicology at Texas Tech University and head of its Institute of Environmental and Human Health.

"It's a very significant amount of oil moving downstream right now, and oil is a toxic substance in itself," he said. "A whole suite of organisms, from mink (upper right) to herons (left) to sturgeon to dragonflies, are going to be affected as waves of oil come through."

Oil cleanup continues while frustration and questions from residents show deepening concern

Schweitzer said local public health authorities would have to determine
the safety of groundwater well supplies, adding, "I'm not going to make a blanket statement about all wells that are adjacent to the Yellowstone River. (Right: main principles of groundwater pollution).

Some Montana residents have reported symptoms ranging from shortness of breath to fainting spells linked to exposure to petroleum-based chemicals.

Stacy Anderson said on Tuesday her parents, Bob and Patty Castleberry, are still living in a hotel after their home was evacuated Saturday along the Yellowstone less than a mile from the site of the ruptured pipeline. She said her mother, who suffers from a respiratory condition, passed out several times even after the couple left the house.

"All their clothes, the suitcase -- everything smelled like solid crude oil; when my mom got away from it, her symptoms disappeared," Anderson said.

She said Exxon is paying her parents' hotel bill as well as covering the cost of feed for the couple's 10 goats that have been steered away from oil-soaked grasslands.

The Montana oil spill is far smaller than the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico last year and the Exxon Valdez spill in Alaska in 1989. The BP spill spewed 168 million gallons of oil and the Exxon Valdez spilled 11 million gallons of crude oil.

Reuters,"Exxon oil spill on Yellowstone River disrupts farms", accessed July 6, 2011
St. Louis Today, "Documents detail Exxon's Yellowstone response", accessed July 6, 2011
Los Angeles Times, "Oil spill outrages Montana residents", by Molly Hennessy, accessed July 6, 2011
Videos courtesy of MSNBC, NBC Nightly News, Associated Press, and PBS.


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