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Schweitzer Confident of Full Oil Spill Cleanup, Future Pipelines Will Be OK

July 5, 2011 at 12:00 AM EDT
Three days after an ExxonMobil pipeline ruptured on the Yellowstone River, spewing 42,000 gallons of crude oil, crews are still scrambling to contain the spill but rising water levels blocked efforts to reach some of the soiled shoreline. Jeffrey Brown discusses the scope of the damage with Montana Gov. Brian Schweitzer.
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TRANSCRIPT

JUDY WOODRUFF: Next, assessing the damage from an oil spill in Montana and the effort to clean it up.

Jeffrey Brown has the story.

JEFFREY BROWN: One of the great Western rivers now stained in oil. Three days into the spill on Montana’s Yellowstone River, cleanup crews scrambled again today to contain the ooze. But rising water levels, caused by increased snowmelt, blocked efforts to reach some of the soiled shoreline.

The leak occurred last Friday upstream from the ExxonMobil refinery in Billings. A company pipeline known as the Silvertip ruptured on the river bottom and spewed 42,000 gallons of crude into the water before the leak was stopped.

ExxonMobil initially played down reports that the spill had spread far beyond a 10-mile stretch of river. But, by Monday, company executive Gary Pruessing acknowledged the damage could be more extensive, and he pledged to do whatever is necessary to clean up the mess.

GARY PRUESSING, ExxonMobil: We understand that we need to get our full arms around where the exposure areas are. We have not fully completed that yet, so we continue to look downstream to make sure that we have identified all the areas that we need to address.

JEFFREY BROWN: That news came as area residents voiced growing fears about the effects on their land.

ALEXIS BONOGOFSKY, Montana: It’s scary. I mean, I grew up here. This is my place. I know this place like the back of my hand. From what I’m looking at, there’s oil all over the topsoil. And I don’t — you know, I don’t want my animals eating that.

JEFFREY BROWN: For now, cleanup workers watched for the high waters to recede, so they can begin checking the river banks for oil.

And we’re joined now by Montana Gov. Brian Schweitzer, who toured the spill area today, and joins us from Helena.

Governor, welcome.

What can you tell us about the scope of the damage so far?

GOV. BRIAN SCHWEITZER, D-Mont.: Well, first, you need to understand that the Yellowstone is the largest undammed river in the United States.

It’s one of those wonderful blue-ribbon streams that we have in Montana, some of the finest fisheries anywhere in the world. This pipeline spilled into the Yellowstone River near Billings, Mont. And it spilled into the river when it was running at near record high.

We heard from some industry people that said, oh, that’s great because the solution to pollution is dilution, and these 42,000 gallons, that’s a very small part of this raging river. Well, the problem is, is that the river in fact was going over its banks at the time that the pipeline burst (AUDIO GAP) fell into these lowland, these wetland areas, these primordial areas where the microbes feed the insect, and the insects feed the reptiles, and the reptiles, of course, feed the (INAUDIBLE) the river.

And now that the river is going down, this thick (AUDIO GAP) is along those wetlands with those cottonwoods and aspens in farmers’ fields. And we’re left with trying to pick this up.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right. Well…

GOV. BRIAN SCHWEITZER: I can tell you this…

JEFFREY BROWN: OK.

GOV. BRIAN SCHWEITZER: … that Montana — well, Montana’s interests aren’t perfectly aligned with ExxonMobil’s and the EPA’s.

Our interests are for the wealth and the health of the Yellowstone River, the people of Montana and future generations. And theirs are to limit liability for their shareholders.

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, Governor, we’re having some video problem. But we will try to continue and hope for the best here.

But tell me about the response so far, because you were initially upset with the response from ExxonMobil. We talked to them today, and they said that they’re there in force, they’re there with full resources, they’re responding as best they can. They have claims adjustors standing by to help people with monetary damages. What’s the situation now, as you see it?

GOV. BRIAN SCHWEITZER: Well, it will never be enough.

Of course, we’re expecting a full cleanup, that the Yellowstone River will be completely restored. And, of course, ExxonMobil has repeated over and over that they are financially responsible to those state and federal agencies that are involved in this cleanup and ultimately the private landowners along the river.

So, it’s a wait-and-see attitude. To paraphrase from President Reagan, with this company, we will verify and — and verify.

JEFFREY BROWN: And to be clear at this point, has the leak actually stopped? Has oil stopped spilling from — from the pipeline?

GOV. BRIAN SCHWEITZER: There are shutoff valves approximately 600-meters wide on both sides of the river. And, so, according to the company, some seven minutes after they detected a pressure drop, they started shutting down the pipeline and they had the oil shut down within 30 minutes.

This is a 12-inch pipeline that runs at 400 PSI, so maybe 2,000 to 3,000 gallons per minute flows through the pipeline. And, of course, after they shut it down, that 600 meters of oil would have flowed into the river. They estimate it’s at 42,000 gallons maybe. Only ExxonMobil would know for sure.

JEFFREY BROWN: And what are the concerns? As you — are you — of course, you now have this special problem of waiting for the water to go down a bit. But you have got farming. You have got water, municipal water. You have got fishing. Tell us what — what it is that you’re watching most carefully at this point.

GOV. BRIAN SCHWEITZER: Well, each of the water systems for the towns downriver, we need to watch and make sure that the levels of oil are down, so it’s safe for them to open their intakes and begin purifying water.

We’re concerned about farmers’ fields and livestock that would drink the water or eat the grass. And, of course, we’re most concerned about Montana’s $400 million trout fishing industry. People come from all over the world to see the rivers that run through it. Eleven million people visit every year to see Montana’s remarkable landscape and wildlife.

And we want to make sure that this river, like the rest of the rivers of Montana, are completely restored for this generation and the generations to come.

JEFFREY BROWN: Now, at the same time, the oil industry, oil production, transportation is an important industry in your state as well, has a lot of support there and a lot out West. Is this causing you to rethink any of that support?

GOV. BRIAN SCHWEITZER: Well, this Silvertip pipeline actually is an older technology pipeline. We no longer lay pipelines in the beds of rivers.

The newer technology is that we actually horizontally bore 25 feet and deeper beneath the beds of the river, so if a catastrophe like this were to occur, it would be separated from the water flow. But, unfortunately, this one was only buried five or six feet in the bed of the river.

And with the Yellowstone River raging at historic levels, it’s like 1,000 mini-bulldozers that are cutting new channels in the bottom of that river, tearing down huge trees and moving — moving boulders from the Rocky Mountains towards North Dakota.

This is the natural nature at work, and this pipeline probably just wasn’t buried deep enough. And that’s why new technology includes horizontal boring. I asked ExxonMobil, if they replace this Silvertip pipeline, will they use horizontal boring? And they assured us that they would.

JEFFREY BROWN: And so some of — of course, the biggest current question out there is the so-called Keystone pipeline, the one that is projected from Canada, all the way through Montana, down to — down to Oklahoma, Texas, the Gulf Coast.

Now, does that — does what you’re seeing happen now cause any new questions about something like that?

GOV. BRIAN SCHWEITZER: Actually, in my conversations with TransCanada, the company that has proposed the Keystone XL, they have assured me that, A., they use this boring techniques, so that none of these pipelines will be laid into these riverbeds.

And, secondly, instead of having humans involved in the shutoff devices — you see, this device that was placed along the Yellowstone River was actually controlled out of Houston, Texas. Yes, you got it. In Montana, they had controls in Houston, Texas. And after some seven minutes, they started shutting the pipeline down. It took about 30 minutes.

TransCanada has explained to me that, across every river and stream in Montana, that they would have automatic shutdown valves and backed-up systems by humans, so that this kind of catastrophe wouldn’t and could not occur.

First, the pipeline is not in the river. And, secondly, there are automatic immediate shutdown systems, which ExxonMobil didn’t have in the Silvertip.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right, Gov. Brian Schweitzer in Montana, good luck with the situation out there now.

GOV. BRIAN SCHWEITZER: Thank you.