OIL SPILL

Schweitzer in Billings to assess oil spill damage

2011-07-05T12:05:00Z 2011-07-13T01:40:40Z Schweitzer in Billings to assess oil spill damage

Story By ROB ROGERS
Photos By
JAMES WOODCOCK

Of The Gazette Staff

The Billings Gazette

Gov. Brian Schweitzer, meeting with state, federal and ExxonMobil officials Tuesday morning in Billings, pressed Exxon representatives on the cleanup efforts and their plans for the breached Silvertip pipeline after it is repaired.

Once Exxon crews can reach the Silvertip pipeline beneath the Yellowstone River, they will likely replace the breached portion by using newer technology to bury the new pipe section at least 25 feet below the riverbed, said Gary Pruessing, president of ExxonMobil Pipeline Co.

Throughout the press conference, representatives from both Exxon and the Environmental Protection Agency assured the state and the public they would be on-scene until the Yellowstone River oil spill was cleaned up.

“Our interests aren’t perfectly aligned,” Schweitzer told them. “The cleanup is done when the state of Montana says it’s done.”

An estimated 1,000 barrels of oil — roughly 42,000 gallons — spilled late Friday before the flow of oil from the damaged 12-inch-diameter pipeline could be stopped.

Exxon officials showed for the first time Tuesday where the Silvertip pipeline runs underneath the Yellowstone River. The pipeline comes up from Wyoming, passes beneath the river just east of the U.S. 212 bridge in Laurel, and then turns and follows I-90 up to Exxon’s Billings refinery.

Statewide, there are 88 places where gas and oil pipelines run below Montana rivers, Schweitzer said, and he has ordered a review of the pipelines’ age and shutoff valves.

Of concern Tuesday was the height of the Yellowstone. The river had been below flood stage since the weekend but was expected to crest again by mid-day Tuesday.

“We’re not done with high water,” said Tom Livers, deputy director of the Montana Department of Environmental Quality.

The volume and speed of the water in the river has made cleanup difficult.

For most of the weekend, floating debris and water speed kept crews from using boats. Cleanup crews alongside the river are required to wear life vests in case the riverbank gives way.

“Right now we have eight boats on standby,” Pruessing said.

Once it is safe enough, Exxon crews will send out the boats to help spot pockets of oil and aid with the cleanup.

Exxon has 360 people in town to assist in the effort. Roughly 200 of them were on the river Tuesday cleaning.

The cleanup effort itself is divided into four sections stretching from Laurel to Glendive. The first two sections cover approximately 20 miles of river from Laurel to Lockwood. That’s where the majority of the cleanup efforts are focused.

So far, oil clinging to the riverbank has been spotted as far downstream as Huntley, about 25 miles from the spill site in Laurel.

Exxon officials continue to fly the river searching for oil beyond Huntley and have asked landowners with riverfront property to inspect their property and call Exxon’s claim line with anything they find.

Schweitzer joined in the call, urging those on the riverfront from Laurel to Glendive to walk their land and call in anything that looks suspicious.

If they wait, he said, there’s less chance that Exxon will recognize their claim.

The Silvertip pipeline was delivering 40,000 barrels of oil a day to the Billings refinery. Pruessing said it took a half-hour to shut down and seal off the ruptured pipe after workers spotted a dip in pressure.

But documents released to the Associated Press by the Department of Transportation showed the pipeline was not fully sealed for 49 minutes. The longer time was based on information provided to the federal agency by Exxon, company spokesman Alan Jeffers said.

He added that the discrepancy may have resulted from Pruessing speaking without notes in front of him. “Clearly our communication with the regulator (DOT) is the one that we’ve got precision on,” Jeffers said.

Federal regulators have ordered Exxon to make safety improvements to the 20-year-old pipeline. Among them was an order to re-bury the line to protect against external damage and assess risk where it crosses a waterway.

The company also will have to submit a restart plan to the Department of Transportation before crude can again flow through the line.

“When companies are not living up to our safety standards, we will take action,” Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood said in a statement.

Also at the press conference Tuesday was U.S. Rep. Denny Rehberg and staff members from the officers of Sen. Jon Tester and Sen. Max Baucus.

Rehburg spoke of the river’s importance to ranchers, farmers and state residents.

“We need to figure out how this happened and take steps to make sure doesn’t happen again,” he said in a statement. “Our water is our most precious resource and we’ve got to take every reasonable precaution to protect it. In the mean time, our primary goal has got to be minimizing any potential health concerns and limiting damage.”

Baucus reiterated the importance of getting the oil cleaned up correctly.

“Priority number one is getting the oil cleaned up quickly and making sure homeowners, businesses, sportsman and wildlife are made whole,” he said in a statement Tuesday. “I’m keeping a close eye on ExxonMobil and working with the refinery and local officials to make sure the river is restored and Montanans are paid fairly and quickly for their losses.”

Tester called on Exxon to spare no expense in the cleanup effort.

“Exxon is an important part of Montana’s economy that puts good people to work developing our region’s critical natural resources,” he said in a statement. “But as taxpayers and customers, we have done our part. Exxon has the means to fully absorb the cost of cleanup and recovery without squeezing Montana taxpayers or hurting local refinery jobs, and it should.”

Because the spill has stayed mostly in the river, the impact on public health has been minimal.

Both RiverStone Health, Yellowstone County’s public health agency, and Billings Clinic said they have received no reports of injuries or illnesses related to the spill.

One person visited St. Vincent Healthcare and was treated and released Monday morning, according to Dr. Jim Bentler, of St. Vincent Healthcare’s Emergency Department.

Associated Press reporter

Matthew Brown contributed to this report.

Cindy Uken contributed to this report. She can be reached at at cuken@billingsgazette.com or 657-1287. Contact Rob Rogers at rrogers@billingsgazette.com or 657-1231.

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