At least 42,000 gallons of oil has leaked into the Yellowstone River from a broken pipeline, leaving the Glendive city water supply smelling and tasting like petroleum.
State and federal officials said Monday that preliminary tests indicate some oil from Saturday’s Bridger Pipeline break got into Glendive’s public water supply. The Environmental Protection Agency is bringing in water for the town’s 6,000-plus residents as a precaution as it determines whether the pollutants found in the water are a health threat.
Bottled water will be distributed at The EPEC building located at 313 S. Merrill Ave. on Tuesday. Times have not been announced.
“We tested the water and at some taps we detected hydrocarbons,” said Paul Peronard, the on-scene coordinator for the EPA. “We’ve ordered in drinking water that we’re going to make available.”
Monday, water samples were sent to a laboratory in Billings for further testing. Results are expected Tuesday.
Meanwhile, the Glendive water treatment plant has stopped drawing water from the Yellowstone River. The community has enough reserve water to last a few days, but will have to begin drawing water from the river eventually to maintain pressure. Peronard said engineers are on the way to Glendive to determine how to clean the treatment plant and how to safely draw water from the oil-contaminated river.
The discovery came as a surprise to cleanup officials because Glendive’s water intake is 14 feet beneath the river surface. Oil floats on top of the water. Officials had assumed the oil would pass over the area without interacting with the city water intake.
Glendive residents like Carrie Flynn Keiser began reporting the taste and smell of oil in their drinking water Sunday.
“We heard about it about an hour before we tasted it (in) the water,” she said.
Keiser, who lives at 600 Snyder Ave., said she was alerted to the spill because her mother in-law saw a friend’s Facebook post about it.
Her in-laws across town also were reporting an oily smell and taste in their water.
The mother of five said she does not want her children, the three other children she cares for, her husband or pets to drink the tainted water. Her family is relying on a small storage tank in their basement. When that runs out, they’ll buy bottled water, Keiser said.
Monday morning, Keiser was still waiting for authorities to explain what was going on with her water.
“There’s a big impact. The water’s not drinkable at all,” she said.
Ice on the river is complicating cleanup efforts. Much of the oil from the pipeline break six miles upstream from Glendive is trapped beneath a sheet of river ice and cannot be seen, according to the EPA.
Crews need to get equipment onto the river for cleanup, but in most areas the ice is too thin. The area with the thickest ice appears to be near Crane, some 30 miles downstream from the spill. There, crews are cutting slots in the ice, into which sheets of plywood will be inserted to force the oil upward so it can be sucked out. The Crane site will serve as a backstop, Peronard said.
Closer to the broken pipeline, crews will work to recover oil from an opening in the ice. But where the ice is too thin, the cleanup efforts will be called off.
“If the ice isn’t thick enough and we cannot operate safely, then we’re not going to do it,” Peronard said. “The fact is, I’m not risking any lives.”
Trapping the oil in clear water downstream from ice is also difficult. Containment booms — floating, ropelike material used to hem in oil spills on water bodies — don’t stand up well to floating ice chunks.
The ice does slow down the oil’s progress, though. The rough underside of the river’s frozen cap is slowing the oil’s trip downstream. In some cases, the oil may travel one-third to one-fifth the speed of the river water.
At the pipeline site Monday, excavation crews were digging up sections of the Bridger Pipeline on both banks of the river. The federal Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration said Bridger Pipeline LLC would try to recover oil believed to be still trapped in the broken pipeline.
It still wasn’t clear exactly where the leak was. The pipeline section crossing the river is roughly a mile long and bookended with safety valves located several yards away from the river’s edge.
Bridger Pipeline monitoring data suggests that at least 300 barrels of oil spilled from the breach before safety valves shut down the flow. But the milelong section of pipe also holds roughly 900 additional barrels, of which it’s uncertain how many may have leaked into the river after the shutdown.
By late Monday, officials were estimating the spill to be 1,000 barrels.
Bridger spokesman Bill Salvin said Monday that the company is confident that no more than 1,200 barrels — or 50,000 gallons — of oil spilled during the hourlong breach.
“Oil has made it into the river,” Salvin said. “We do not know how much at this point.”
An oil sheen was seen near Sidney, nearly 60 river miles downstream from Glendive, said the EPA’s Peronard.
Bridger Pipeline crews were still working Monday to determine exactly where the breach occurred.
If it happened on the bank, some of the oil may be trapped in the soil near the river.
“If it happened underneath the river, then it’s all in the river,” Peronard said.
Bridger Pipeline is part of the Poplar Pipeline system, which runs from Canada to Baker and carries crude oil from the Bakken oil field. It remained shut down Monday. The pipeline receives oil at the Poplar Station in Roosevelt County, Fisher and Richey Stations in Richland County and at Glendive in Dawson County, all in Montana. It was last inspected in 2012, Salvin said.
Bridger Pipeline, a subsidiary of True Cos., also owns and operates the Four Bears Pipeline System in North Dakota along with the Parshall Gathering System and the Powder River System in Wyoming, according to the company’s website.
The Bridger Pipeline is 55 years old, according to the EPA. It was buried 8 feet beneath the Yellowstone River at last inspection.
The pipeline was a moderate risk for failure in 2011, according to government reports.
Bank erosion along the south side of the Bridger Pipeline crossing had made the 12-inch diameter oil line more vulnerable to damage, according to the Yellowstone Pipeline Risk Assessment.
The report was compiled by the Yellowstone River Conservation District Council in 2012 after the 2011 rupture of the Silvertip Pipeline near Laurel.
The assessment, the most recent available, indicated a risk for accelerated future erosion because of a recent upstream change in the river’s path near the site of Saturday’s spill. It was also in the path of a major ice scour in 2014 that leveled trees and in some areas altered the course of the river.
Four pipelines run near the Yellowstone River in Dawson County. Two run parallel to the river and two cross beneath the riverbed.
All four were evaluated in 2012. Two of the pipelines were at a low risk of rupture.
A natural gas pipeline owned by the Williston Basin Interstate Pipeline Company, which runs under the river parallel to a railroad bridge upstream from Highway 10, was considered at high risk for damage. As with the Bridger Pipeline, erosion was the main culprit for the gas line.
The Williston pipeline is girded by the railroad bridge abutment on both sides of the river, but has had erosion problems for many years.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.