Crews responsible for cleaning up the oil spill on the Yellowstone River faced difficult conditions Tuesday as the scenic waterway rose above flood stage and raised fears that surging currents will push crude into undamaged areas and back channels that are home to some of the best fish habitat in the world.
Conditions on the swollen river have prevented a thorough assessment and hampered efforts to find the cause of Friday's break in the 12-inch pipeline that spilled an estimated 1,000 barrels of crude oil. The line is owned by Exxon Mobil, the oil giant responsible for the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil disaster in Alaska.
The river was flowing too high and swiftly to launch a boat, and forecasters said mountain snowmelt was adding to the swollen Yellowstone — the longest undammed river in the United States.
Gov. Brian Schweitzer said he has 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 told Reuters by telephone as he toured areas hit by the spill.
Much of the riverbank is covered with dense underbrush, making it difficult to walk long portions of shoreline. Most observations have been made through aerial flights. Officials have speculated that the high water might push pools of oil into areas that haven't yet been damaged.
Exxon Mobil Corp. 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 it has traveled hundreds of miles to North Dakota.
"At seven miles per hour, some oil is already in North Dakota. That's a given," Schweitzer said. "I'm asking everyone to get out there and report what you see on the river."
Exxon officials did not immediately address Schweitzer's claims.
Representatives of Exxon Mobil and the Environmental Protection Agency said they had no reports of oil beyond the town of Huntley.
The Department of Transportation said Tuesday that oil was observed as far downstream as 240 miles in Terry, Montana. The agency said that information was provided by Exxon Mobil, but company spokesman Alan Jeffers said he was not aware of any such sighting.
Company officials have acknowledged under political pressure that the scope of the leak could extend far beyond the 10-mile stretch that they initially said was the most affected area. Sherman Glass, Exxon's president of refining and supply, said crews have identified 10 places where oil has pooled in the heaviest amounts within 20 miles of the break.
The surge of water raises concerns it will carry oil into areas that have not yet been affected, said Tom Livers, deputy director of the state Department of Environmental Quality. It also would make it difficult for the 250 cleanup workers to get to known damaged areas.
Exxon Mobil Pipeline Co. President Gary Pruessing has said the company is not limiting the scope of the cleanup to the immediate site. The company planned to test the river's conditions with a jet boat, with eight more on standby if the launch is successful, Glass said.
The pipeline burst Friday upstream from a refinery in Billings, where it delivered 40,000 barrels of oil a day. The 20-year-old Silvertip pipeline followed a route that passes beneath the river.
The cause of the rupture has not yet been determined, but company and government officials have speculated that high waters in recent weeks may have scoured the river bottom and exposed the pipeline to damaging debris.
Pruessing said Tuesday for the first time that it took a half-hour to shut down and seal off the pipeline after workers spotted a dip in pressure. The line was temporarily shut down in May after Laurel officials raised concerns that it could be at risk as the Yellowstone started to rise.
The company decided to restart the line after examining its safety record and deciding it was safe, Pruessing said.
The U.S. Department of Transportation, which oversees pipelines, notified Exxon Mobil in July 2010 of seven potential safety violations and other problems along the pipeline. Two of the warnings faulted the company for its emergency response and pipeline corrosion training, and another noted a section of pipeline over a ditch covered with potentially damaging material and debris.
Transportation Department spokeswoman Patricia Klinger said the company has since responded to the warnings and the case was closed. Company spokesman Alan Jeffers said there was no direct connection between those problems and the pipeline failure.
The impact on wildlife has not been assessed, although Exxon said one case — a dead duck — had been reported but not confirmed. The Billings Gazette has run pictures of a turtle and a group of pelicans apparently with oil on them.
The rupture site is upstream of Yellowstone National Park, which is about 110 miles away. Officials said the river portion in the park is not threatened by the spill.
But the stretch of the Yellowstone where the spill occurred contains sauger, bass catfish, goldeye, trout and, farther downstream, below Miles City, native pallid sturgeon. If another surge of water pushes oil into back channels as expected, it could threaten fisheries, said Bruce Farling, executive director of Trout Unlimited's Montana chapter.
Farling said there are many fish eggs and recently hatched fish in those channels.
"If we get a bunch of oil in some of these backwater areas, these are precisely where these small fish rear," Farling said.
Schweitzer on Monday said authorities will review safety of all oil and gas pipelines that cross waterways in the state and close those that did not meet standards.
"We'll make the decision over the next couple of days whether to shut off some pipelines," Schweitzer told Reuters. "The last thing I want is for another pipeline to break."
Schweitzer said the pipeline inspections — the second round he has called for in as many months — will assess the risk of ruptures and leaks in 88 sections of pipeline that cross rivers and streams in the state.
The review will gauge factors including the pipelines' age, thickness and corrosion, and the condition and operation of all shut-off valves.
Underscoring rising anger over the spill among some riverfront property owners, Pruessing was confronted after his news conference by a goat farmer and environmental activist who said his partner was sickened by oil fumes and had to be taken to the emergency room.
"I need to know what we've been exposed to. People are sick now," said Mike Scott, who also works with the Sierra Club. Scott's partner, Alexis Bonogofsky, was diagnosed Monday with acute hydrocarbon exposure after she experienced dizziness, nausea and trouble breathing, he said.
Pruessing said air and water monitoring had not revealed any health risks. But he told Scott the company would provide the public with more information.
The Environmental Protection Agency said in a statement that officials were still taking air and water samples to determine the impacts.
Stacy Anderson said on Tuesday her parents, Bob and Patty Castleberry, are still living in a hotel after their home was evacuated Saturday along the Yellowstone less than a mile from the site of the ruptured pipeline. She said her mother, who suffers from a respiratory condition, passed out several times even after the couple left the house.
"All their clothes, the suitcase — everything smelled like solid crude oil; when my mom got away from it, her symptoms disappeared," Anderson said.
She said Exxon is paying her parents' hotel bill as well as covering the cost of feed for the couple's 10 goats that have been steered away from oil-soaked grasslands.
Jerry Williams, who raises livestock, wheat, alfalfa and hay on some 800 acres of land around Laurel, said high water from the river has washed oil across much of his property.
"It was the night the river peaked, so the river water was flooded all over the place, and that brought oil all over both ranches," he told Reuters. "All of our grasslands ... have just thick, black crude stuck to all the grass, trees, low lands."
Williams said his spring wheat crop and alfalfa are both in need of irrigation, but farmers in the area were advised not to take water from the river for the time being. Drinking supplies also are in limbo, he said.
"We get all our drinking water from our wells and for our animals," Williams said. "We don't know if we'll be able to use them since the river was high. All the groundwater, I assume, is probably contaminated. We just don't know."
Call for tougher regulations
The Yellowstone spill has amplified calls from some safety advocates and environmentalists who want the government to impose more stringent regulations on the industry.
Anthony Swift, a policy analyst with the Natural Resources Defense Council, said the fact that Exxon Mobil's Silvertip line was apparently in compliance with federal rules underscores that those rules need to be strengthened.
"These are the sort of spills that we shouldn't be tolerating," Swift said. "We need to incorporate tougher safety standards."
The Montana oil spill is far smaller than the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico last year and the Exxon Valdez spill in Alaska in 1989.
The BP spill spewed 168 million gallons of oil and the Exxon Valdez spilled 11 million gallons of crude oil.
But the polluted stretch of the Yellowstone River is also a much smaller body of water than the Gulf of Mexico and Alaska's Prince William Sound.