Video: Exxon underestimated size of Yellowstone oil spill

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    >> and crushing news arrived over the weekend from a beautiful part of this country in montana fwhooir yellowstone national park .

    >>> an oil spill that we now know may be larger than first feared, and cleanup, may, as a result, be more difficult than first thought. nbc's george lewis , just outside billings, montana for us. good evening, george.

    >> reporter: good evening, brian. the people have been hit with a double whammy. the yellowstone river laced with oil is flooding and waters have been rising all day in communities around here. exxonmobil expanded its cleanup effort putting more people in the field. there are 360 workers assigned to the spill as the giant oil company tries to figure out what went wrong with its pipeline.

    >> i really can't speculate on what caused this. it was a very big surprise to us.

    >> reporter: roaring floodwaters have sent a lot of trees like this crashing into the water. one theory is the soil eroded the pipeline allowing debris to strike causing pipeline to rupture. they toured the spill today observing the cleanup and promising landowners like jim swanson he'll keep after exxonmobil to get rid of the oil.

    >> this cleanup is done when the state of montana says it done and i promise you this i'll be on this like smell on skunk until it's doenl.

    >> reporter: along another part of the river bank , bob castleberry showed us his flooded home and his land reiching of crude oil .

    >> when we bought it it was a dream home and we wanted to stay here forever.

    >> reporter: now the house will be torn down and bob and his wife will have to rebuild on higher ground. the oil stain on the side of his garage is the high watermark from the flooding. bob said he was shocked when he first looked out at the smelly water surrounding his house.

    >> i shined the spotlight and the river was black with crude oil , just black with crude oil .

    >> reporter: in spite of promises by the governor and exxonmobil to get the spill cleaned up, no one yet knows how long that will take. and exxon says the oil extends at least 25 miles downstream, although it could go much farther and they are urging homeowners and people along the river bank to make their own observations and call in, brian?

    >> terrible thing in one of the most beautiful spots in

msnbc.com staff and news service reports
updated 7/7/2011 12:23:54 AM ET 2011-07-07T04:23:54

Exxon Mobil came under fire on Wednesday from Gov. Brian Schweitzer, who said the oil giant had assured Montana that any spill on the Yellowstone River could be shut off in a few minutes.

Instead it took nearly an hour for that to happen when a pipeline ruptured on July 1, releasing an estimated 42,000 gallons of oil into the longest undammed river in the U.S.

"We were told that there were automatic shut off valves and that it's not possible that it could run even a couple of minutes into the river before it shut off," Schweitzer told MSNBC, recalling how the state and Exxon Mobil ran a mock drill on the river last year.

Once the spill happened, "Exxon Mobil said to begin with that it had only run for six minutes and that it was controlled out of Houston, Texas," he added. "That grew to 30 minutes and then it's unclear if they're now saying 48 or 58 minutes."

U.S. Department of Transportation records indicate the pipeline was not fully shut down for 56 minutes after the break occurred Friday near Laurel at 10:40 p.m. local time. Emergency responders at the National Response Center were notified of the spill at 12:19 a.m.

The company said the longer timeframe did not change its estimate of how much crude entered a river famous for its fishing and vital to farmers for irrigation.

"The best thing they could do at this point is be completely honest," said Schweitzer. "It is clear that their veracity has not been 100 percent to this point."

Exxon Mobil, which was also responsible for the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil disaster in Alaska,had earlier also assured concerned regulators that the pipeline was buried deeply enough to avoid being damaged.

Story: Oil impact on Yellowstone River a long-term question

The cause of the pipeline failure remains under investigation. The prevailing theory is that the raging Yellowstone eroded the riverbed and exposed the line to damaging debris.

U.S. Department of Transportation documents show that after officials in Laurel, Mont., raised questions last year about erosion along the riverbank, Exxon Mobil in December surveyed its depth and said it was at least 5 to 8 feet beneath the riverbed.

Federal regulations require that pipelines be buried more than four feet beneath the water at stream crossings.

At an Environmental Protection Agency meeting Wednesday night, roughly 150 people showed up with questions about health risks, the duration of the cleanup, and whether the oil will permanently damage their livestock or property.

George Nilson, 69, said the fumes from oil that wash through his neighbor's property had been overwhelming. He said it took several days of calling a spill hot line before he got a response.

"Why the slow response," said Nilson, who lives outside of Billings. "I've been in it for five days now and the only way I can breathe is to have all the windows open."

An EPA representative said the agency may to indoor air sampling after hearing several complaints such as Nilson's.

When the river started to rise this spring and Laurel officials again said they were concerned, federal pipeline regulators contacted Exxon Mobil and were told by the company on June 1 that it was not at risk and was buried 12 feet beneath the riverbed.

Exxon Mobil Pipeline Co. president Gary Pruessing said Wednesday the company did not know where the 12-feet figure came from but was looking into the matter.

In normal weather conditions, about four feet below ground is a safe depth, but pipeline companies should be paying close attention to the safety of their pipelines given this year's unusual weather and record floods, said Brigham McCown, a former federal pipeline safety official who advises oil companies.

Story: Flood surge could spread Yellowstone River oil spill

On Monday, the company acknowledged under political pressure that the leak's impact could extend far beyond a 10-mile stretch of the river it initially said was the most affected area. The company had earlier downplayed government officials' assertions that damage was spread over dozens of miles.

The river has been flowing too swiftly for crews to reach some oiled areas, and forecasters said mountain snowmelt was adding to high water levels. Officials speculated that the surge may push oil into areas that haven't yet been damaged.

Most observations have been made through aerial flights.

Company and federal officials said they have only seen oil about 25 miles downstream from the site of the break near Laurel. But Schweitzer said he believes trace amounts have traveled hundreds of miles to North Dakota.

Schweitzer, who toured the area Tuesday said he told Exxon and federal agencies overseeing the spill response that the state alone will decide when the cleanup is done.

"The state of Montana is going to stay on this like the smell on a skunk," he vowed.

Schweitzer also ordered a review of pipelines that cross major and minor rivers in the state. Officials will look at the pipes' age, location of shut-off valves and whether they are similar to the ruptured pipe. He said the state has 88 such crossings.

The Associated Press and Reuters contributed to this report.

Interactive: Exxon pipeline burst spills oil in Yellowstone River

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