MOVING ON, MOSTLY

A year after spill, life returns to normal for most

2012-07-08T00:15:00Z 2012-07-08T05:32:34Z A year after spill, life returns to normal for mostBy ROB ROGERS rrogers@billingsgazette.com The Billings Gazette

The Webbers' ranch house on River Road just east of Laurel is maybe three-quarters of a mile from the banks of the Yellowstone River.

In the early summer sunshine, the place is quiet and inviting. Small clouds of insects hum over the deep green grazing pastures stretching out behind the house. Beyond the fields, the river blinks and shimmers through lines of massive, aging gray-green cottonwood trees.

Gerry Webber, standing on her porch recently, talked about how different it all was a year ago.

"The night it happened the smell woke us up," she said. "It was so strong."

Late on the evening of July 1, 2011, ExxonMobil's Silvertip pipeline, buried just below the Yellowstone riverbed, was torn apart by debris coursing down the flooded, swollen, fast-moving river.

The pipe broke in two and pumped 1,509 barrels of oil — more than 63,000 gallons —  into the river before the flow was shut off. The result was miles of oil-soaked shoreline, acres of oil-smeared crops and oil rings painted on everything from trees to birds' bellies to houses.

It also led to a $135 million cleanup, $1.6 million in state fines for Exxon and a pending lawsuit against the oil company by a group of landowners affected by the spill.  

In fact, the lawsuit has perhaps led to more hard feelings among property owners than the spill itself.

"We weren't compensated, but we didn't feel like we had to be compensated," said Roger Erickson, whose ranch skirts the river.

He doesn't understand why some of his neighbors felt they had to turn to the courts to get what they wanted from Exxon.

"Our government's the one that let them put (the pipe) in," he said.

The landowners who have sued Exxon declined to comment, citing directives from their lawyers with the Edwards Frickle & Culver law firm not to speak to the media.

Attorney Chris Edwards said the lawsuit is still in the discovery phase and won't go to trial for another year or more. The firm represents around a dozen property owners.

"I still get calls from people wanting to know" what their rights are and if they can sue, he said.

The night of the spill, Erickson and his wife were told to leave their property and spent time in a hotel, with Exxon picking up the bill. The fuel they spent traveling between their ranch and Billings as they dealt with the spill's aftermath also was covered by Exxon, along with other expenses.

"They almost insisted they reimburse us," Erickson said.

Exxon paid for reseeding on many of the river properties, replaced culverts in the area and graded and added gravel to North River Road. Along the river, the oil company paid for repairs to flood-damaged boat landings and improvements to Riverfront Park in Laurel.

"Exxon was great," he said.

Webber had much the same experience. And like Erickson, she doesn't understand her neighbors who decided to sue.

"We feel like (Exxon) did very well by us," she said.

Jerry Hanson has a pond on his property that he had to drain this spring. When the water was removed, he thought he saw a sheen of oil reflecting in the sunlight. So he called his contact at Exxon.

"They must have had 20 people down there right away," he said.

They ran tests and it turned out to be nothing. The immediate response to his call and Exxon's response last summer impressed Hanson.

"I'm a happy camper down here by the river," he said.

But it's been a hard year for Bob and Patty Castleberry. Their home at the end of North River Road is the only property along the river that has yet to be fully cleaned.

Oil rings line the house's foundation and sit three feet high on the inside walls of their garage and Bob's workshop. There's also oil under the house that Exxon eventually will have to clean up.

The house itself has begun to buckle and crack after flooding three times last year. It's so close to the river now — the front porch sits five feet from the bank — that it's one heavy winter and wet spring away from washing down the Yellowstone, Bob said.

"Our house is in such a situation it has to be destroyed," he said.

And that's the problem. The Castleberrys can't pay for the demolition. They had flood insurance through the Federal Emergency Management Agency and are fighting to have it pay for the demolition.

They've also pushed on Exxon to do it. Exxon is required by law to clean the oil from the property but can't until the house is removed.

After getting nowhere with FEMA and fighting over a county grant they had been promised — after the first floods but before the oil spill — to help with the house's destruction, the Castleberrys recently sued FEMA in U.S. District Court in Billings alleging the agency has failed to provide proper coverage in their efforts to demolish their house.  

"We had no alternative but to get an attorney," he said.

Now, Bob said, "We're just waiting to see who's doing what."

They secured a loan earlier in the year and purchased a pre-fabricated home that they've installed a quarter mile from their old house. The new home was delivered in May, and they've been moving their belongings over ever since.

It was expensive. They'd been in their old home for 13 years and are still paying the mortgage on it.

The new house is great, but the move has been bittersweet.

"It was a gorgeous place," Patty said of her old home. "It's not anymore."

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