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Big Sky Country Struggles With Yellowstone Oil Spill Aftermath

July 8, 2011 at 12:00 AM EST
In Montana, contractors have been working 12 hours a day to soak up what they can of the estimated 42,000 gallons of crude oil that escaped into the Yellowstone River from a broken ExxonMobil pipeline. Correspondent Tom Bearden reports from Laurel, Mont., on the cleanup effort and health concerns for humans and wildlife.
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JIM LEHRER: Now, NewsHour correspondent Tom Bearden reports from Laurel, Mont., on the big oil spill in the Yellowstone River.

TOM BEARDEN: For the last week, contractors have been working 12 hours a day, laying down what look like oversized paper towels on the standing water next to the Yellowstone River. They’re trying to soak up some of the estimated 42,000 gallons of crude oil that flowed out of an ExxonMobil pipeline last Friday night where it crossed under the river near town of Laurel, about 17 miles west of Billings.

The sheets absorb oil, but not water. They’re replaced when they have soaked up their fill of crude. The crews also are laboriously hand-cleaning the grass and shrubs along the bank.

ExxonMobil pipeline company president Gary Pruessing says the rupture of the pipeline known as the Silvertip came as a surprise. Pruessing says the company had done a comprehensive inspection at the end of last year.

GARY PRUESSING, ExxonMobil: We had been working with the city of Laurel, who had actually asked us to look at this particular crossing, and to stand back and do additional engineering analysis, and work with the city of Laurel to make sure that we were comfortable operating this line.

We have between five — or had between five and eight feet of cover between the pipeline and the bottom of the river. And, again, at the time of, as the river was rising, as we did this analysis, we felt like we had a very safe condition.

TOM BEARDEN: The U.S. Department of Transportation, which oversees pipeline operations, cited the company for seven violations last year. A department spokesperson says the company had responded and the case had been closed.

But now the runoff pouring down from the rapid melting of the record snowpack in the mountains of Yellowstone Park, more than a hundred miles to the west, may have contributed to the accident by uncovering the pipeline.

It might surprise people to think that between five and eight feet of the riverbed was eroded by this spring’s runoff.

GARY PRUESSING: At this point in time, we do not know what the cause of this incident was. I know there has been speculation that that potentially was the cause, but we have an investigating team in place to try to determine exactly what happened.

Obviously, in the particular case, as we did a risk assessment, there was something that we did not anticipate. And so we did have an event here. There will be learnings, of course, that we will build into our other pipeline management and actually will share with the industry to make sure that these kind of events do not occur in the future.

TOM BEARDEN: Pipelines crossing over and under rivers are not at all uncommon. The Silvertip alone has five crossings. In all, pipelines operated by various companies cross Montana rivers in 88 places, and the state has announced plans to review all of them.

ExxonMobil operates 8,000 miles of pipelines in Montana alone. And there are some 2.5 million miles of lines that crisscross the entire country. New technology allows and new regulations require that new pipelines be drilled 25 feet or more beneath riverbeds, and Pruessing says that is how the crossing at Laurel is likely to be rebuilt.

In the meantime, Ritt Bradshaw and a lot of other ranchers and farmers are having to cope with this spill. Bradshaw trains horses on a ranch about 35 miles downstream. Oil-laced floodwaters have invaded his corrals and forced him to move his livestock.

RITT BRADSHAW, rancher: The only thing is you have to be careful that, you know, any livestock, it probably isn’t going to be the best thing in the world for them to drink.

TOM BEARDEN: Do you have other water for them to drink?

RITT BRADSHAW: Yes, we — we got to have some well water, which we’re, you know, putting the animals in corrals, so we can give them good well water.

TOM BEARDEN: One of the biggest problems facing the people trying to deal with this oil spill is the Yellowstone River itself. As you can see, there’s an enormous quantity of water rushing down the channel. And that keeps people from getting to the places where they think the oil is.

BOB GIBSON, Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks: We really don’t know what to expect. We really haven’t had oil contamination of this degree or on habitat that is this sensitive and this usable that I can think of in this area.

TOM BEARDEN: Bob Gibson has been wading around in flooded wheat fields looking for oil.

BOB GIBSON: Right by the edge of the open water there, you can start to see that bathtub ring of oil that formed at the top when it came in. And you can see it all the way along the edge there.

TOM BEARDEN: Gibson is with the Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks. A lot of ranchers who raise crops and cattle feed are wondering if this year’s crop will be so contaminated, they won’t be able to harvest it.

BOB GIBSON: Because of the high flow of the river, we’re not able to access probably 99 percent of the riverbank. All of the islands are inundated. A lot of the shores are inundated. There’s swamps backed up away from the water a lot.

So we’re not able to access the shores, the islands. There’s actually enough debris and high enough water and dangerous enough water in the Yellowstone now that we’re unwilling to put a jet boat on it to get to some of those areas.

TOM BEARDEN: Gibson and others say it may take three weeks before the river begins to go down. There’s no doubt that many people here are worried. About 200 residents showed up for a town hall meeting Wednesday night to tell federal, state and local officials about their concerns.

KIT NILSON, Montana resident: We have been calling that 1-800 number about three times a day, and we have had no response.

TOM BEARDEN: Several spoke of persistent strong petroleum odors that made them feel sick.

GEORGE NILSON, Montana resident: I want to know, is this going to be like Agent Orange in Vietnam and, five years from now, my lungs are going to go haywire on me? I want to know that right now.

TOM BEARDEN: The Environmental Protection Agency’s regional administrator, Jim Martin, tried to reassure them.

JIM MARTIN, Environmental Protection Agency: That we’re conducting air and water samples, both in the river and from public drinking water systems and from private wells.

And we’re going to turn those results around as rapidly as the laboratories will allow us, and we will get the results out to the public. But, so far, were seeing no significant evidence that — no real evidence that it’s unsafe to drink water from drinking water systems.

TOM BEARDEN: State Sen. Kendall Van Dyk is worried about wildlife and the people who come here to see it. He also represents Trout Unlimited, a national sportsmen’s organization that tries to protect wildlife habitat.

Van Dyk says this part of the river is not a blue-ribbon trout fishery, like Yellowstone Park. But he says the warm water species that thrive here also draw tourists. He’s worried that, after all the bad publicity, they will stay home.

KENDALL VAN DYK, Trout Unlimited: People come here from all over the world. And this time of year, this is tourist season in Montana. You know, we do a lot of bragging about Montana, especially this time of yea, with our fly-fishing, and it’s the reason people come here, is to come experience this. And these aren’t the kind of headlines people want in Montana. This isn’t the way we like to talk about our state.

TOM BEARDEN: Most of the people we talked to were pretty satisfied with the cleanup effort, but not the governor.

Gov. Brian Schweitzer withdrew from the EPA-led joint command center, saying ExxonMobil was actually in charge and was withholding information from the press and state officials. In response, an EPA spokesman reiterated that his agency was leading the effort, not the oil company.

Tom Reiter is also unhappy. He says he lost a lot of boat repair business because the authorities closed a road, and his customers couldn’t get to his shop. That’s the same road where the major cleanup operation is under way. It runs along the south side of the river channel, near where the spill started. Deputies say it was closed to protect the cleanup workers. But the closure forced Reiter and others to take long detours.

TOM REITER, business owner: It shouldn’t have happened in the first place. The neighbors go through it. Unless there’s water or oil going across that road, I don’t see any reason to close it. It seemed to us, it was the general consensus that they didn’t want the public to get close to the river. And that’s the most accessible part of the river for the public right now.

TOM BEARDEN: Reiter loudly protested, so loudly at a roadblock that he later said he was surprised he wasn’t arrested.

But, apparently, local authorities got the message.

(PHONE RINGING)

TOM REITER: Excuse me. My customers are trying to get through here.

Hello. This is Tom.

County commissioner.

TOM BEARDEN: While we were interviewing Reiter, he got a phone call from two county supervisors and the sheriff, who said they would fix the problem.

Bill Kennedy is one of those commissioners. He says local and state government will make sure the entire problem will be fixed.

BILL KENNEDY, Yellowstone County Commission: We want it put back the way it was. And with all of that, we have had assurances from Exxon that they will work to get this back, and to get it back to where it was.

If it takes anywhere from six weeks to a year to a year-and-a-half, whatever it takes, we want to make sure that all of this area and the landowners that are affected are — are happy with the results.

TOM BEARDEN: But some environmentalists say this accident is exhibit-A to bolster their opposition to a much larger planned pipeline to run from Canada’s vast oil fields to Houston. That line would also cross the Yellowstone and other rivers.

But, despite the spill, many people, including the governor, remain strongly in favor of transporting oil to the state’s refineries to feed the nations appetite for fuel.