Montanans Worry About Fallout from Yellowstone Spill

BY Tom Bearden  July 8, 2011 at 2:35 PM EDT

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“The last, best place.”

That’s how Montanans often describe their state to outsiders. “A great place to raise a family” is also popular. They brag about their deep blue “Big Sky,” the scenery, and the hunting and fishing.

But this week, many people are worried that the state’s reputation as a tourist attraction has been badly damaged by worldwide news coverage of an oil spill. Last Friday, a pipeline called the Silvertip released an estimated 42,000 gallons of crude oil into the storied Yellowstone River.

Apparently, a lot of outsiders see the word “Yellowstone” and think the spill is somewhere inside Yellowstone National Park. The huge park’s closest boundary is actually about 100 miles by road from the spill, which happened in the town of Laurel, at a point where the pipeline crosses underneath the river.

Gary Pruessing is the president of Exxon Mobil Pipeline Company, which operates the Silvertip. He told me he had spent most of his career running refineries all over the world, and had only recently become involved in pipeline operations. An engineer by training, he said he was somewhat uncomfortable finding himself in the international spotlight as the chief spokesperson for the giant oil company. Over the course of two days, I watched him preface everything he said with an apology to the residents of Montana.

There has been speculation that the Yellowstone River might have scoured out the five to nine feet of soil that covered the pipeline on the river bed, and that debris flowing downstream — perhaps a tree trunk — punctured the pipeline. The river is swollen above flood stage because of melting snow in the mountains west of the break, and is surging down the channel at a startling pace. But Preussing says what actually happened on the riverbed is still under investigation.

Exxon Mobil has now deployed about 500 contract workers to clean it all up. Many of them are working along Thiel Road, which parallels the southern bank of the river near where the break occurred.

I spent four months reporting on the Deepwater Horizon disaster in the Gulf of Mexico last year, and in some ways this cleanup looks like BP’s cleanup operation. Oil-soaked booms have been deployed to protect some of the shoreline, and hundreds of men sweating inside protective clothing are trying to sop up as much of the oil as they can.

This is a dramatically smaller spill, affecting a much smaller number of people. But those that turned out at a public meeting on Wednesday night in Billings are just as worried about the potential long-term consequences for their environment as anybody in Louisiana, Mississippi, and Alabama. The EPA’s Regional Administrator, Jim Martin, told the crowd that his agency was collecting air and water samples and that municipal water supplies are safe to drink. A rancher asked whether his well water might be contaminated, and was told it was unlikely. Officials urged ranchers not to plow their land until the oil deposited in farm fields and pastures can be studied, because they want to avoid mixing the crude deep into the soil.

Exxon Mobil has promised to clean it all up, regardless of how much it costs, and state officials say the cleanup won’t be over until Montana says it’s over.

The story that producer Sarah Clune, photographer Brian Gill and I have spent the last three days preparing airs Friday on the NewsHour.

Photos by Sarah Clune and Tom Bearden.