Support Provided ByLearn More
Planet EarthPlanet Earth

Massive Oil Spill in Yellowstone River Contaminates Drinking Water

ByR.A. BeckerNOVA NextNOVA Next
CROP bridger-pipeline-river-overview-1-19-2015
Crude oil poured from a ruptured pipeline into the icy Yellowstone River in Montana.

A ruptured oil pipeline leaked up to 40,000 gallons of crude into the Yellowstone River in Montana last Saturday, contaminating the drinking water for the nearby town of Glendive.

Saturday’s spill adds to a history of pipeline malfunctions—in 2011, the Exxon Silvertip Pipeline spilled 63,000 gallons of oil into the Yellowstone River two and a half hours outside of Yellowstone National Park. This newest disaster comes less than two weeks after the Senate voted 63–32 to advance the bill that would approve the Keystone XL pipeline, which would cross over 1,700 bodies of water in addition to the now oil-slicked Yellowstone River.

Here’s Zahra Hirji, reporting for InsideClimate News :

While state and local officials won’t say how long they expect the cleanup to last, Glendive Mayor Jerry Jimison predicts it will be a while.

Jimison said the river’s ice can linger until as late as mid-March. Until all the ice is gone, he said, “I don’t think [the response team] is going to have much success in cleaning up.”

The town of Glendive began detecting the contaminant benzene in its drinking water on Monday, two days after the spill. According to Elizabeth Douglass, also reporting for Inside Climate News , the pipeline has had a history of trouble, including weak welds made in the 1950s. The segment under the river had been replaced in the 1960s or 1970s, Douglass reports, but Bridger Pipeline, which owns the pipeline, doesn’t know how or with what type of pipe it was replaced.

Support Provided ByLearn More

Montana’s government website urges residents “not to use the water for culinary purposes.” The EPA has confirmed Jimison’s assessment of the cleanup process, stating that identifying and collecting the oil “has been challenging due to extensive ice cover in the river at and below the spill location.”

Receive emails about upcoming NOVA programs and related content, as well as featured reporting about current events through a science lens.

Photo credit: Environmental Protection Agency/

Funding for NOVA Next is provided by the Eleanor and Howard Morgan Family Foundation.

Major funding for NOVA is provided by the David H. Koch Fund for Science, the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, and PBS viewers. Additional funding is provided by the NOVA Science Trust.