OIL SPILL

Ruptured pipeline sends oil coursing down the Yellowstone River

2011-07-02T15:27:00Z 2011-12-22T22:58:08Z Ruptured pipeline sends oil coursing down the Yellowstone RiverBy ROB ROGERS and SUSAN OLP Of The Gazette Staff The Billings Gazette

An ExxonMobil oil pipeline that ruptured beneath the Yellowstone River has fouled more than 150 miles of the waterway between Laurel and Miles City.

Exxon officials have not said what caused the leak, but in a morning press conference Saturday, Yellowstone County officials noted that the high level of the river, the speed of the water and quickly moving debris all may be factors.

ExxonMobil spokeswoman Pam Malek said the pipe leaked an estimated 750 to 1,000 barrels of oil for about a half-hour before it was shut down. Other Exxon officials estimated as much as 42,000 gallons of crude oil escaped.

The oil slick started just east of the Laurel Bridge late Friday night and by 9 a.m. Saturday had reached Worden. By about 3 p.m. it had reached the Myers Bridge in Hysham. The pipe itself connects Exxon's Silvertip Line — which brings crude from the oilfields in northern Wyoming — to the Billings refinery.

At various points along the Yellowstone, strings and pools of black and red-brown crude collected in eddies and clung to plant life and riverbanks. White pelicans sitting on floating logs in the morning sun Saturday were ringed with brown slurry.

"It's going to be a heck of a cleanup," said Duane Winslow, Yellowstone County director of disaster and emergency services.

Evacuation

Crews first discovered oil bubbling to the surface of the river at about 11:30 p.m. Friday. The 12-inch-diameter pipe from which the oil escaped runs below the Yellowstone riverbed east of Laurel. Jeb Montgomery, with the ExxonMobil Pipeline Company, said the pipe was buried six feet below the riverbed.

Emergency crews shut the pipeline down just before midnight, Winslow said.

"Throughout the night, we've worked to determine what happened," he said.

About the time the pipe was shut off, county officials began notifying residents along the river that they should evacuate. Evacuees were initially sent to Bypass Truck Repair on Thiel Road and to the Sweetheart Bakery on Highway 212 South and then later to a Red Cross shelter set up at MetraPark's Cedar Hall. Laurel Fire Chief Brent Peters said about 140 people were evacuated. 

By 5 a.m., officials were telling evacuees they could return home. A check with the two Billings hospitals showed that neither one had seen any patients on Saturday with medical problems related to the spill.

Glenn Wells, who lives in the River Grove Estates near Mullowney Lane, said he was asked to leave his home by a Montana Highway Patrol trooper at 2:30 a.m. Wells, his wife and a friend went to the Red Cross center as it was being set up. Three families were at the center, he said.

"I still smell like oil," he said. "My whole house smells like diesel fuel. It was everywhere on the river -- an oil slick on Billings' West End."

A 600-foot-long black smear of oil coated Jim Swanson's riverfront property just downstream from where the pipe broke.

"Whosever pipeline it is better be knocking on my door soon and explaining how they're going to clean it up," Swanson said as globules of oil bubbled to the surface of the river. "They say they've got it capped off. I'm not so sure."

Cleanup

To deal with the spill, ExxonMobil will direct the cleanup efforts and has called in its Global Response Team, an emergency cleanup crew, out of Houston. The local refinery's cleanup response team was working on the spill most of Friday night and all day Saturday.

The company also has about 100 contractors, most out of Washington, coming to help with the cleanup.

"We regret the release," Malek said. "It's important that we get it resolved."

The Environmental Protection Agency also has dispatched a crew from Denver to monitor the cleanup.

"Exxon really is going to be the incident command," Winslow said.

All other agencies, such as the state Department of Environmental Quality, Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks and the Environmental Protection Agency, will monitor Exxon's effort.

Kelly Drain, emergency response supervisor for the Billings refinery, said two divisions were using absorbent pads and booms to leach up oil from the riverbanks as part of the initial 24-hour response to the spill. Division A was working the area from Laurel to Duck Creek Bridge and Division B was working from Duck Creek Bridge up to Lockwood, he said.

The crew working on Thiel Road near Laurel placed absorbent pads and absorbent booms along the side of the road where the Yellowstone River had spilled over its banks. They poked the pads with long poles to sop up more of the black goo.

Thick oil gathered into a small eddy on the edge of the river, and there was a strong odor in the air. The black oil also coated grass on both sides of the road.

Wildlife

Bob Gibson, information officer for Fish, Wildlife and Parks in Billings, talked about the long-term effects of oil pooling in the shallow areas of the river.

"The biggest one is not going to be the fact that fish get oil in them and die," Gibson said. "But all the little things that fish eat get oil on them and die so there's less for fish to eat."

As the high water recedes and the oil remains, any organisms that exist in the silt "will not be in good shape," he said. Gibson added that tiny organisms that feed on the oil could use up a lot of dissolved oxygen, leaving less of it for fish.

Water safety

The Billings Water Department shut down its intake line from the river on Friday night when the pipeline break was first reported. Crews there tested the water all night and found the water was safe. The intake was turned back on at 5:30 a.m. Saturday, Winslow said.

The water treatment plant was operating at full capacity Saturday. Public Works Director Dave Mumford said in a news release that the city immediately put booms and absorbent pads in place at the plant after learning of the spill. Gates around the plant's intakes were closed, and sand filters at the plant took care of any oil that may have made it past those precautions.

All down the river, municipal water departments will be watching for oil and testing the water to decide if they'll shut down their intake lines.

Aiding the water plants is the fact that oil floats on water. The Yellowstone is running at 14 feet and intake lines at the water plant sit near the bottom of the river at around 3 feet.

Winslow said oil pipelines have been built and installed under the Yellowstone riverbed for years.

"This is the first time I've heard of a rupture," he said.

Faulty communication

Custer County officials expressed some frustration Saturday morning that communities downstream from Billings had not been properly notified of Friday night's oil spill.

"Nobody had been informed," said James Zabrocki, Custer County director of disaster and emergency services.

Zabrocki got a call Saturday morning from a Miles City public utilities official who read about the oil spill in news reports online.

According to Zabrocki, when he called the state Disaster and Emergency Services office, he was told the state Department of Environmental Quality was supposed to be calling the communities downriver.

"I don't know if that ever happened," Zabrocki said.

At this point, Custer County officials are watching and waiting. Zabrocki said they'd monitor water quality and shut down intake at the city's water treatment plant if they start seeing oil.

"That's about it," he said. "That's about all we can do."

Likewise, no word of the spill came to Treasure County through official state channels.

Noelle Pinkerton, Treasure County director of disaster and emergency services, first heard about the oil spill Saturday morning from a town council member who had read news of the spill. Shortly thereafter, a dispatcher with the county sheriff called to relay the news.

Pinkerton spent the morning notifying ditch owners, farmers and other landowners with riverfront access of the oil spill and that it's moving their way.

"I just got through talking to folks," she said.

Associated Press reporter Matthew Brown contributed to this report.

Contact Rob Rogers at rrogers@billingsgazette.com or 657-1231.

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