Delayed response illustrates need for regionally based cleanup teams
By Bob Berwyn
SUMMIT COUNTY — Clean-up experts said high flows in the Yellowstone River will make it hard to recover the thousands of gallons of oil that spilled after a 12-inch ExxonMobil oil pipeline ruptured upstream of Billings, Montana.
The swift flows are spreading the oil over a large area making it harder to capture. But the rapid dispersion of the oil may also reduce damage to wildlife and croplands along the river, according to Steve Way, the on-scene coordinator for the EPA. Read more at the Missoulian.com.
ExxonMobil said it’s ramping up cleanup efforts by bringing in specialized teams. But those efforts may be too little, too late.
The EPA pointed out as recently as late June that having specialized regional cleanup teams in place is critical for a timely response. According to an EPA paper, response times for inland oil spill often push or exceed federal legal requirements for a response within 12 hours.
“These response times can be critical, particularly when the product has reached fast moving waters such as rivers and streams,” the authors of the EPA inland oil spill response study wrote.
“We are bringing in experts from across the country to clean up the oil,” ExxonMobil Pipeline Company president Gary Pruessing said in a press statement. “We will stay with the cleanup until it is complete, and we sincerely apologize to the people of Montana for any inconvenience the incident is creating.”
ExxonMobil said they haven’t pinpointed a cause for the spill, but several news reports cited experts who said high flows in the river may have exposed the pipeline to damage from debris in the water.
The pipeline had all required permits and had been inspected as recently as December.
According to ExxonMobil, pipeline pumps were shut down within seven minutes of a pressure loss and action to isolate the pipeline was immediately initiated. The amount of oil released is estimated to be between 750 and 1,000 barrels.
Air quality monitoring throughout the impacted area is ongoing and has confirmed no danger to public health. Municipal water systems are being notified to monitor water quality but no reports of impacts have been received to date.
Oil has been found as far as five miles down the river from the pipeline location and additional reports of oil sightings are being investigated.
Crews from ExxonMobil’s Billings refinery responded Saturday by using booms and absorbent pads to pick up oil and staged response equipment throughout the area.
An additional 50 people trained in oil spill response were expected to join the effort Sunday. They will be joined by members of ExxonMobil’s North American Regional Response team from across the United States who have expertise in oil spill emergency response operations.
“We recognize the seriousness of this incident and are working hard to address it,” said Pruessing. “We will continue to add resources and are extremely grateful for the patience and assistance of local residents and authorities.”
ExxonMobil is working to coordinate the cleanup with local authorities, including the Environmental Protection Agency, the Montana Department of Environmental Quality, Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks, county commissioners, local response organizations and International Bird Rescue.
“We are presenting a detailed plan this morning which outlines how we clean up oil already located and continue to search for additional oil,” said Pruessing.
Environmental groups pointed out that ExxonMobil’s record of operating oil and gas pipelines in Montana is riddled with accidents.
According to a blog post on the Natural Resources Defense Council website, the 550-mile Yellowstone Pipeline that carries oil from Billings to Idaho and Washington has leaked hundreds of thousands of gallons of petroleum into Montana’s rivers and lands, including Native American tribal lands.
Altogether, the pipeline has leaked at least 71 times on tribal lands, including one failure that resulted in a 163,000 gallon spill into a reservation creek.
As a result, the Confederated Salish and Kootenai tribes rejected a renewal of the pipeline lease a few years ago.