In a meeting with landowners Friday morning, Gov. Brian Schweitzer asked those with oil from the Yellowstone River spill on their land to get a soil sample and bring it to his new Billings office.
About 100 residents and officials gathered Friday as Schweitzer showed off his new oil spill command center at 424 Morey St., the Billings headquarters of the state Department of Transportation.
“This is your office,” he told the crowd.
He said his staff would be on hand to help anyone with complaints or questions regarding the oil spill. Schweitzer promised the public that if their questions weren’t answered in 24 hours, they could call him directly and he would track down a response.
Pointing to boxes of glass jars in the back of the shop where he had staged his meeting, he told landowners that collecting soil samples would ensure independent verification of the findings that ExxonMobil will make as the company cleans up the spill.
As they collect their samples, Schweitzer told residents to make sure the process was well documented, to take video of the sample collection and label it specifically. Have a witness on hand and mark the area where the soil was extracted, he said.
“We don’t have an army, like Exxon,” he said. “We don’t have an army like the EPA. We just have Montanans.”
But, he added, that should be enough.
Schweitzer said during the meeting that the state had acquired a “fingerprint” of the oil from ExxonMobil’s pipeline so material found along the Yellowstone and on people’s property can be checked against the state’s sample to verify its origin.
“We’re going to keep poking them with a sharp stick until it gets done,” he said.
At the meeting, Environmental Protection Agency officials announced that after preliminary testing, water from the Yellowstone was safe for irrigating and watering livestock.
The meeting lasted about two hours with landowners and residents speaking up with questions about whose land gets cleaned first, if livestock can eat oily grass and how families can get help with medical bills.
On hand to answer questions were leaders from state departments of Fish, Wildlife and Parks, Environmental Quality and Disaster and Emergency Services, among others.
Some spoke up to praise the governor for the way he was pushing Exxon for total accountability, and others praised Exxon for the help they’d offered as residents were pushed from their homes.
“These are good people, too,” he said of Exxon employees.
But, he said, the state must ensure that it takes care of its responsibilities to the public and to the land.
In an effort to understand factors that could have led to the spill, U.S. Rep. Denny Rehberg requested that the House Subcommittee on Railroads, Pipelines and Hazardous Materials hold a hearing on pipeline safety and the Yellowstone River oil spill.
“Montanans deserve to know what went wrong, what went right and what can be done to prevent something like this from happening again,” Rehberg said in a statement Friday.
The hearing will begin Thursday in Washington, D.C.