Image: Cleanup worker on Yellowstone River
Jim Urquhart  /  AP
A cleanup worker uses oil absorbent materials on the Yellowstone River in Laurel, Mont., on Wednesday.
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msnbc.com news services
updated 7/8/2011 7:55:54 PM ET 2011-07-08T23:55:54

Montana set up its own spill command post on Friday after its governor withdrew from a joint command team, saying citizens "can't get straight answers" from Exxon Mobil over the damage from a spill along the Yellowstone River.

Gov. Brian Schweitzer said Exxon had restricted reporters, and even some state environmental officials, from joint command sessions in violation of Montana's open-meetings law.

"Montana has a much higher standard than Exxon Mobil when it comes to transparency," Schweitzer said at the opening. "We won't be involved in secret meetings and secret documents."

He also said the company has been too slow in responding to citizen queries about the spill.

"When Montana citizens call a hotline and Exxon Mobil doesn't get back to them, that's unacceptable," Schweitzer said.

Schweitzer and other state officials told landowners along the river to collect samples of oil-stained water, soil and grass that they can use as evidence if they have to file claims against Exxon Mobil.

Schweitzer brought hundreds of sample jars to hand out at the event, which attracted about 100 people. About two dozen raised their hands when Schweitzer asked if there were riverfront landowners present.

Schweitzer urged locals affected by the spill to begin documenting damage themselves by taking their own videos, collecting soil samples and pulling together necessary paperwork for making claims.

"Right now, we can't get straight answers from Exxon engineers. Imagine what we'll get from their lawyers," he said.

The rupture last Friday night of a 12-inch pipeline carrying crude oil to a refinery in Billings dumped up to 1,000 barrels of oil into one of America's most pristine rivers about 150 miles downstream from Yellowstone National Park.

A joint unified command organization consisting of the state, Exxon and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency was set up after the spill to oversee efforts to assess damage, conduct cleanups and provide information to the public.

Exxon Mobil security workers have closely guarded access to the command post on the second floor of the Crowne Plaza Hotel in Billings, where the EPA and other federal agencies also are stationed. Attempts by The Associated Press to talk to government officials there have been denied.

"The state will no longer have a presence at the Crowne Plaza because Exxon Mobil tells us they can't respect the open government laws we have in Montana," Schweitzer told The Associated Press. "I can't allow state employees to be in meetings at the Crowne Plaza talking about this cleanup without having it open."

Exxon Mobil spokesman Alan Jeffers denied the company had sought to curb access to unified command meetings or information, saying the EPA was in charge.

"We do not run the unified command. We are providing security services for the unified command, just like we are providing cleanup serves for the unified command," he said.

The Democratic governor also pointed out discrepancies in the company's reports of how long it took to shut down the pipeline after it ruptured July 1 and said company officials are downplaying the damage to wildlife.

With its multi-billion-dollar profits and the legacy of the 11-million-gallon Valdez oil tanker spill of 1989, Exxon Mobil offers an easy foil for a politician like Schweitzer.

Throw in the corporation's massive ground presence to deal with the spill — an estimated 500 contractors and employees as of Friday, plus its role providing security — and it's no wonder the governor's folksy yet combative style has resonated in a state proud of its natural attractions and clean environment.

"I just want to thank you for who you are and for your skepticism of Exxon," Susan Huntoon, 65, of Laurel, told the governor during a community meeting Friday at the state's new command post. "We all know they want to spend as little as they can. We saw that with BP."

Keenly aware of the company's public image, Exxon Mobil executives have repeatedly apologized for the spill and have pledged to spend whatever it takes to restore the river.

But the company has made some glaring missteps on the public relations front, including the appearance that it was downplaying the extent of the contamination in the first days of the cleanup.

The company said then that the damage was concentrated within a five- to 10-mile stretch of river. That figure has been growing since, hitting 30 miles in recent days.

Later came inaccuracies in how long it took to fully shut down the pipeline from the company's control room in Houston. After initially saying it took six minutes, the company revealed in filings with pipeline regulators that it took almost an hour to completely stop the flow.

Exxon Mobil Pipeline Co. President Gary Pruessing has apologized for that, too. Company officials insist there was never any intent to deceive.

Jeffers said Exxon Mobil learned its lesson about dealing with spills forthrightly after the Exxon Valdez soiled Alaska's coastline.

Exxon Mobil quickly came under fire in that case for downplaying the threat, deflecting the blame and being aloof. Crude oil from the tanker still lingers on some beaches 22 years later, and some marine species never recovered.

"Our focus needs to be on ensuring accuracy, the double- and triple-checking of data to ensure the public gets accurate information," Jeffers said. "The principal of active and frequent communications with the community is one we take very seriously. It's part of the system that was born out of the Valdez accident and is really important for us."

EPA spokesman Matthew Allen said the agency has been pleased with Exxon Mobil's efforts to date. The company has accepted fault for the spill and has heeded the agency's orders on the cleanup, Allen said.

"It's much better to have a company that acknowledges this is their responsibility and is doing the cleanup than to fight them all the way," he said. "We're happy with the level of cooperation."

There have been confirmed reports of oil as far as 80 miles downstream from the pipeline break near Laurel, and on Friday, state officials said they had found significant amounts of oil 40 miles downstream near Pompeys Pillar National Monument.

The spill came after local and federal officials for months questioned the stability of the riverbank where Exxon Mobil's 12-inch pipeline crosses the Yellowstone.

In June 2009, an 8-inch Williston Basin Interstate Pipeline Co. natural gas line that crossed in almost the same spot ruptured during high waters. That line has since been abandoned and a new one installed 30 to 50 feet beneath the riverbed, said Tim Rasmussen with MDU Resources Group, Williston Basin's parent company.

A shallower 16-inch gas pipeline operated by Williston at the same crossing was shut down May 28 over fears that it, too, could fail, Rasmussen said Friday. That line has not been reopened.

Despite early worries that the spill could poison the Yellowstone, in terms of sheer volume the spill is minuscule compared to the more than 4 million barrels released during last year's BP Deepwater Horizon spill into the Gulf of Mexico.

No one was killed in the Yellowstone River pipeline failure, and so far there have been no widespread fish kills or other catastrophic wildlife scenarios such as those the BP spill produced.

U.S. Rep. Denny Rehberg, R-Mont., said Friday that the House Subcommittee on Railroads, Pipelines and Hazardous Materials will hold the first congressional hearing on the spill next week.

But Schweitzer knows the spill's moment in the spotlight won't last long.

Ever aware of the changing rhythms of the news cycle, the governor said he's going to press the EPA and Exxon Mobil as aggressively as he can. And if the outside world is listening in, all the better.

"We're going to keep poking them with a stick," he said. "But eventually some congressman's going to run off with someone's wife or take a picture of himself, and then we're out of the press. For now, it's keeping the heat on the people in Houston, in Washington."

Among those seeking answers are Henry and Kit Nilson, a retired couple whose riverfront property just downstream from the spill site near the town of Laurel was soaked with crude.

"Everything is coated with oil. It will never be the same," Kit Nilson, 67, told Reuters of land that has been in their family for 130 years. Five days after the accident, no one from Exxon or the government had been to her property, she said.

"You want to give everybody the benefit of the doubt, but from our standpoint, this has not been handled right," she said. "We had a million questions and none have been answered. It's been very frustrating."

In response to complaints at a public meeting hosted by the EPA near Billings on Wednesday night, Jeffers said Exxon had assigned more employees to its telephone hotline.

He also said the company sent claims adjusters to the public meeting and had contacted every one of the landowners, now numbering about 80, who had called to report oil contamination on their property.

The EPA issued a statement saying the agency was continuing to direct the spill response and "will continue to work hand-in-hand with the state of Montana, other federal agencies, and local government to ensure the spill is cleaned up and the environment restored."

Indoor air, cropland soils and residential wells downstream of the July 1 oil spill will be tested for contamination after residents raised concerns about hazards from the tens of thousands of gallons of crude that poured into the watercourse, the EPA said.

EPA and local officials said they do not expect to find significant health dangers but were acting as a precaution. Some residents in oil-stained areas have complained of nausea, dizziness and shortness of breath that have lingered for days.

Soil from agricultural areas and water from hundreds or residential wells also will be tested in coming days. Exxon Mobil's contractors will collect duplicate samples so their results can be verified by government scientists.

Restricted river access to be eased
Authorities in Yellowstone County said they would ease travel restrictions along a road near the spill site after some area residents and members of the media complained about a lack of access.

Those restrictions at times have been enforced by private security contractors working for Exxon Mobil, who turned away reporters or blocked them from areas where cleanup work was going on.

"We have been frustrated since the spill took place because we've burned up time waiting for Exxon officials or other authorities to respond to our request for information and access," said Steve Prosinski, editor of the Billings Gazette. "We realize cleanup is their primary focus but they have a responsibility through us to communicate how the cleanup is going."

Yellowstone County Sheriff Mike Linder said his deputies were working in conjunction with the company but had not ceded any authority to it. Linder said the restrictions were meant to protect public safety.

"They're not calling the shots down there as far as access," Linder said of Exxon Mobil. "They'll let us know when there is a safe time or not a safe time. We're working together, is what we're doing. If it's a safety issue, we will address it. If it's not, we will work with them to make sure everybody has access."

Jeffers said the company was trying to be transparent and has worked over the week to improve media access to cleanup areas.

Dangerous river conditions have so far prevented environmental inspection teams from reaching most of the inlets, back channels and other shoreline areas where much of the oil would likely collect, and where fish would seek refuge from high water, said Robert Gibson, a spokesman for the state Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks.

Reuters and The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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