The Environmental Protection Agency has conditionally signed off on ExxonMobil's work plan for cleanup of the July 1 oil spill in the Yellowstone River.
Exxon included in this latest draft comments and additions made by state and federal agencies. Full approval from the EPA will come on Aug. 8 when Exxon submits a letter stating that the company will comply with the changes.
"We're making good progress," said Steve Merritt, EPA's on-scene coordinator for the spill.
The EPA has given Exxon the deadline of Sept. 9 to finish the initial phase of the cleanup. That means that all sites identified by survey teams should be cleaned and certified clean by the September deadline.
Merritt said work on the sites was progressing and that while the deadline is there, work is "conditions-based, not time-based." They'll be on site until the spill is cleaned up, he said.
Officials expect that results from the first batch of soil tests will be released by Wednesday or Thursday of next week.
Delays in testing results from water and soil samples taken from property owners along the river have been a point of frustration for officials and members of the public.
"It's a several-step process," Merritt said.
Bill Brown, president of Energy Labs in Billings, said his company has been working late nights and weekends to keep up with the demand.
As a result, he said, the company still hasn't reached its testing capacity. The company could handle more if it had to, he said.
Testing results from his lab have been delivered to the EPA. The EPA considers those initial results preliminary until a third party signs off on them.
Once validated, the results are then released to the public.
The Montana Department of Environmental Quality follows the same procedure.
"There's a whole quality assurance procedure," DEQ director Richard Opper said. "We want to make sure what we put out is quality information."
Early in the response, the EPA decided to follow the same testing procedures used by the state on its soil and water samples. Montana's threshold for clean water and soil is higher than the federal standard.
EPA officials decided that in order to "compare apples to apples" as the state and the EPA compare their findings, the two groups needed to follow the Montana standards.
Also expected soon is an agricultural fact sheet that will help farmers and ranchers better understand what effect the spilled crude will have on their land and livestock.
State and federal authorities created a special committee of agriculture, oil and environmental specialists to look at the impact the crude could have farms and ranches.
Cleanup along the Yellowstone River from the spill site in Laurel to the Yellowstone County line has been divided into 360 segments. Of those segments, 32 percent still need to be surveyed for cleanup, Merritt said.