Cleanup along the Yellowstone River continued Thursday as more crews converged on the area of Friday’s oil spill and continued to lay down absorbent materials and vacuum up standing pools of oil.
Amid it all, some property owners along the river east of Laurel are feeling frustration and fatigue. It pushed Cathy Williams and her daughter Erika Williams Madrigal to visit the emergency room Wednesday night.
Earlier in the day, Williams and Madrigal said they could no longer take the headaches and nausea, so they headed for the hospital.
They live on 500 acres of riverfront property east of Laurel. Since Saturday, the family members have been outside working their land, trying to document how far the oil has reached. And they have had to prevent their cattle from grazing by keeping them corralled, feeding them hay that had been stored for winter.
Normally, their house is about a quarter-mile from the Yellowstone River. Right now, it’s roughly 1,000 feet from the bank. By Friday night, water had covered most of their property.
When it receded Saturday, it left strips of oil a few feet wide and hundreds of yards long across their pasture and pools of oil in the brush and backwaters behind their home.
For much of the week, the smell has been overwhelming. By Wednesday, it became too much.
Williams and Madrigal were told by the doctor that their bodies were reacting to the fumes from the oil. Madrigal spent much of the night and Thursday morning vomiting.
“She’s still really sick,” Williams said of Madrigal.
ExxonMobil officials have been to their property a number of times since the spill. They were there again Thursday to test the water in the family’s well.
But cleanup is still focused along the riverbank a mile upstream from their property. The cleanup at their place has not begun.
And that’s been frustrating. Oil coats the grass and ground on much of their pasture. Until it’s cleaned up, their 40 head of cattle can’t graze there.
“We go from feeling mad to feeling really sad,” Williams said.
Looking out over her land, Williams just can’t see how crews will clean it up.
Mary Ann Dunwell, a spokeswoman for the Montana Department of Environmental Quality, said many of these landowners are physically and emotionally drained.
“They’ve been through the floods. They’ve not recovered and now they’re dealing with the spill,” she said. “They’ve been through enough. They’ve been put out. They don’t need to be put down.”
Dunwell will be working out of Gov. Brian Schweitzer’s Billings office, which he opened Thursday.
She said the Billings office was opened to give the public a place to visit and get information about the spill or to report concerns or complaints.
The lack of access that Exxon has given to the public thus far has been a point of concern with Schweitzer. On Thursday, he ordered state employees to pull out of the incident command center set up to oversee the spill, fearing that the meetings there weren’t up to the state’s legal threshold for open-meeting laws.
An alternative state command center will be run out of his Billings office.
The governor is holding a community meeting at the office, 424 Morey St., at 10 a.m. Friday.
By Thursday, ExxonMobil workers had laid 8,000 feet of absorbent booms along banks of the Yellowstone River and put down 150,000 pads in an effort to mop up 42,000 gallons of crude that spilled into the river Friday night.
“We’re making good progress,” said Gary Pruessing, president of the ExxonMobil Pipeline Co.
But, he said, there’s still much to do. He repeated again that the company would be on site until all the oil was cleaned up to the satisfaction of federal and state authorities.
The number of responders Exxon has called in up has steadily grown. Just more than 500 workers have arrived in town, with 350 of them on the ground Thursday.
Exxon officials announced Wednesday night that two new spots of oil had been discovered 45 miles and 80 miles downstream from the spill.
The majority of the oil sits on the banks and fields along Thiel Road just east of Laurel.
At this point, Pruessing said he didn’t know how long the cleanup would take.
“We haven’t even tried to look ahead,” he said.
Instead, the company is focusing on the day’s cleanup and then discussing at night where to put efforts the next morning.
“We’re just working this day-to-day,” he said.