Pulling the plug on Big Oil's pipe dreams
Ninemile Valley residents fear Yellowstone Pipeline's future will look too much like its past
Two million gallons of fuel a day are hauled across Montana's countryside by the Yellowstone Pipeline Company. Day and night, trains, trucks and pipelines full of gasoline, diesel and jet fuel deliver the goods from Billings' refineries to markets like Missoula and Spokane.
If the company gets its way, part of the caravan will stop soon, to be replaced with a new million-gallon-a-day pipeline running from Missoula west along Interstate 90 to Huson, up the length of the scenic and sensitive Ninemile Valley, over rugged Siegel Pass to the pipeline re-connect in Plains.
It sounds like an ambitious engineering feat, but one which company officials say is well within their reach. A far greater obstacle could be the mountain of anger and resistance from residents of the Ninemile, Six Mile and Frenchtown valleys.
YPL officials say the company has cleaned up its act; that its 43-year legacy of fuel leaks and distrust on the Flathead Indian Reservation is a thing of the past. They point to national data to support their contention that pipelines are a far safer transport than the trucks and rail cars that currently stop the gap.
But those who oppose letting the oil consortium dig up their back yards say YPL left groundwater contaminated and feelings trampled on the reservation; they believe that YPL's next spill is only a matter of time.
The Flathead Indian Reservation of the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes is a place where lush plains, undulating grassland and forested mountains roll into one another off the high-octane fervor of U.S. Highway 93. People are few and cattle plenty. Many reservation residents describe their tie to the land as a religious one, and feel that oil spills desecrate land irrevocably, even if company and state tests show that local well water is safe.
In 1954, refined petroleum products began flowing through the buried 10-inch-diameter Yellowstone pipeline across 56 miles of the reservation. During the next four decades, YPL's system lost a total of 3.5 million gallons in 71 separate spills.
One of the most recent accidents came at a tough time for YPL. Just one year before the company's 20-year lease with the tribe was set to expire, people living near Camas Creek began smelling fuel. In the time it took for YPL to catch up with the leak, at least 3,000 gallons of fuel had seeped out of the pipeline and into the ground.
Ken Hunter's modest white house sits in a glade of old, large trucks and older, larger ponderosas right where the open agricultural expanse of Camas Prairie meets a wall of forested hills. Across the back of his property, protected in some places by a thorny thicket, Camas Creek is but an autumn afterthought of a stream. In Hunter's photos, taken in the spring, the creek looks big enough to drown in. In an open streamside area, a circle of rocks hold down the bulky tarps of a sweat lodge.
Hunter says he first thought the smell was coming from an oil stove, and he searched the oil pipes in his basement for leaks. Soon, according to Hunter and others, mail carrier Eugene Stone smelled fuel along his route and thought something was wrong with his vehicle. The Hunters eventually developed flu-like symptoms; neighbor Billy Willingham and his family got sick with splitting headaches and nausea, Willingham says, after drinking coffee made with water from the Hunter's well.
Not until January 1993, more than six weeks later, about half a mile upstream from Hunter's house, did local residents identify a leak in the buried pipeline as the source of the odor. By that time, fuel was two to three inches thick under the ice and rocks of Camas Creek and had spread downstream.
What company response crews found on January 15 and 16, 1993, according to the 1995 Environmental Impact Statement produced by the Bureau of Indian Affairs, was 2,500 feet of "significantly affected" creek including five pools of "free-phase product" (aka fuel), and benzene levels two miles downstream exceeding state and tribal human health standards.
For residents of the reservation as well as in the proposed re-route area to the south, the fuel in Hunter's backyard came to signify the danger of the pipeline and YPL's perceived refusal or inability to responsibly deal with the pipeline's hazards.
Hunter has spent about half his 47 years fighting fires. Since he first smelled petroleum in his house in late November 1992, he's taken on other fights -- with the fuel percolating from underground into his stream, with lawyers, bureaucrats, YPL, and with his own family members who ultimately settled with YPL.
Today, frogs and tiny rainbow trout jump in the stream that Hunter, other locals, and YPL crews have worked to rehabilitate. So far, YPL has spent more than $1.5 million on the cleanup, and settled with Hunter's father to the tune of about $100,000.
"We had to compensate people," says David Vanderpool, project engineer for YPL. "We had to provide clean drinking water sources for them. We hauled bottled water up there for those people for a long time, till we knew that there were no contaminants."
Vanderpool adamantly de-fends YPL's response to the spills and characterizes as "totally unfair" any suggestion that the company was anything less than prompt and thorough in its responses. "We have never stopped working on those," he says. "We have never hinted anything to anyone that we were going to walk away from that. It is completely opposite of the truth."
Although no local wells remain contaminated, Vanderpool admits that nearly five years after the Camas leak, "If you were to dip your hand down into the soil near the leak site you would smell the gasoline, diesel fuel there."
The Camas spill was a blow to YPL's position at the bargaining table with the tribes, and the company offered a tempting upgrade to the $12,000-per-year annual lease signed back in 1974. For right-of-way renewal through 16 miles of tribal land, YPL offered $1.3 million in annual "special compensation and cultural program support," two annual scholarships worth $25,000 each, and a host of other benefits from fire trucks to more cash -- not to mention new spill response technology and a full-time employee on the reservation to look for leaks.
But the tribes demanded ten times as much -- $1.5 million per month -- and negotiations ended without a settlement.
The battle, says the tribes' Environmental Protection Division Manager Bill Swaney, was not about money. "The overwhelming sentiment was that we basically stood to lose much more than we would ever gain in terms of the damage that could result from a major spill and ultimately it wasn't something that money could really compensate for," he says. "We have one homeland here, and if it's damaged or despoiled in one fashion or another we can't just move to another homeland. This is the only one that we have, and we tend to be very protective of the resources."
Other reservation residents have more ill words for YPL, accusing the company of everything from doing nothing about spills to failure to close stock gates behind them. True or not, the effect of YPL's experience on the reservation has spread beyond the tribe to many residents of Ninemile, Six Mile, Frenchtown, Huson, Plains and Paradise, giving YPL a headache they are now finding difficult and expensive to cure.
Vanderpool has the laborious job of convincing Ninemilers and, more importantly, the Forest Service, that his company has improved its attitude and technology and is close to attaining its much vaunted goal of "No Leaks." He is quick to agree that the company had a terrible spill record before 1988, after which the spill rate has in fact been greatly reduced (Camas Creek being a notable exception). But he feels certain that newer technologies, combined with improved corporate ethics and a more demanding public, ought to ease Ninemilers' fears.
Vanderpool describes the company's safety net: YPL's leak detection system relies on a complex set of readings along the pipeline. At valves every eight or 10 miles, sensors measure the fuel's temperature, pressure and other details. Every six seconds, the data are sent via satellite to a monitoring center at YPL's headquarters in Houston, Texas.
In Houston, the data from the pipeline are compared against a computer model of what officials expect to be happening in the pipe. If the differences between the real data and the computer model are great enough (for example, if pressure drops significantly) to suggest a leak, operators call company managers in Billings, who stop sending fuel through the pipeline, close or open the appropriate valves to retain fuel still in the pipe, and mobilize response teams from places like Missoula. A tome-like Spill Response Plan guides logistics once the leak has been located.
The bigger the spill, the faster it can be detected by the system, and it would take seven-and-a-half minutes to detect a spill of 20 barrels per hour, according to Vanderpool. A barrel is 42 gallons, so only 105 gallons would leak under this scenario before detection in Houston. But if uncorrected, a 20-barrel-per-hour spill translates to more than 20 thousand gallons per day.
Critics say the Houston system cannot detect problems like the one at Camas Creek, in which a flaw in the pipe's longitudinal seam caused a decrease in pressure far smaller than the remotely detectable level. They point out that overall, almost all of YPL's 71 recorded spills were initially discovered by someone other than the company.
Central to YPL's argument for the pipeline permit is that the trucks and trains currently transporting fuel are more dangerous to humans and the environment than the pipeline; statistics from the National Transportation Safety Board clearly agree that pipelines pose a minuscule risk of human fatality, and a significantly lower risk of spill than trucks and trains.
But these figures, too, are a hard sell with Ninemilers. "There are some people who are more comfortable with trucks and trains, I think because they're more familiar," says Vanderpool. "And there's the concept that if a truck or a train spills or rolls over, then it's easier to clean up -- it's right on the road, and it's more obvious than it is in a pipeline."
The first rumor that 28 thousand barrels of petroleum per day might gush through a pipe under the Ninemile's forested hills or flat creek-bed bottom came during the negotiations between the tribes and YPL for the company's right-of-way renewal.
In April 1995 the EIS prepared by the company's consultants for the Bureau of Indian Affairs considered a alternative route that bypassed the reservation to the south through the Ninemile Valley, but rejected it after identifying environmental and logistical problems in favor of the routes across the reservation, then still on the bargaining table.
A banner headline in the Missoulian told locals that their valley, which is a migratory corridor for wildlife between the Bitterroot Mountains to the south and Missions and Rattlesnakes to the east, had been removed from consideration.
The Ninemile route's second life came to Scott Duncan's attention in the fall of 1995 when a right-of-way surveyor knocked on the door and told him that an upcoming pipeline project was planning to condemn an 80-foot swath between his house and corral, including through a creek and forested area. "Then we started to rattle the sabers and get the old muskets out," says Duncan.
The company's proposal to re-route the pipeline through the Ninemile surprised many residents who thought that the matter had been settled by the first EIS. That document clearly identifies many drawbacks to the Ninemile plan, including the steep, rocky terrain at Siegel Pass and the route's proximity to fault lines. The pipeline would pass under nearly 25 miles of forested land including old-growth, elk winter range and wolf home range.
The route, the EIS reads, "increases the potential to contaminate the Missoula Basin aquifer by traversing 40.9 miles of the basin" and could clash with Forest Service plans in an area near Siegel Pass that is under consideration for designation as a wilderness area.
But with a reservation route almost certainly closed to the company, YPL once again is considering plowing through the Ninemile. A new EIS, to be drafted by next July, is expected to name the valley as the preferred alternative.
Locals resurrected the Valleys Preservation Council, a group that was set up to fight another pipeline project in 1979. They held meetings and shook down YPL for information. They considered the risks to the environment, wells, land values, and quality of life. And almost unanimously, they have fought back.
"There are going to be two spills in a 10-year period," predicts Chris Siegler, president of the council. "The question is, where is it going to happen, and who's going to be affected by it?"
The route is not yet set in stone -- it could line the valley on either ridge, or run straight through the bottomland. It could also go right behind Cindy Picciano's house, under a meadow where horses run. Her crawl-space was under 22 inches of water this spring, and she fears a nearby leak could enter her house. Even more, she and her neighbors fear that they -- not YPL -- will be the first to discover a spill, judging from the company's unspectacular report card from the tribes regarding leak response and remediation.
"Their experience with the pipeline has been an extremely important point in formulating our impression of what the risks are," says Siegler.
Coarse alluvial gravels line much of the valley bottoms in the proposal area. Reed Smith says that his Frenchtown neighborhood is underlain by a few feet of soil above 100 feet of sand and gravel. "If you deposit gasoline in there," he warns, "it's going to go down until it hits the water." Residents, accustomed to a bucolic lifestyle where the bears and moose still occasionally visit and motorists wave to one another, fear the worst.
"People who are living here have the potential to have their investment diminished if not ruined," says Duncan, president of the Missoula County Association of Realtors and a 21-year Ninemile resident. "And they have the potential of their water going to hell."
YPL officials defend the company at every public chance, arguing that hundreds of high-paying jobs in Billings' refineries are ultimately at stake if the pipeline re-route plan is rejected. They point to local property taxes the pipeline pays -- $134,500 in Missoula, Lake and Sanders counties in 1995. Most importantly, they say, the entire region -- Western Montana, Northern Idaho, and Eastern Washington to the pipeline's terminus at Moses Lake -- benefits from the lower fuel prices and tighter competition the pipeline provides.
Still opponents see YPL as a tentacle of Big Oil, a corporate shell of Exxon and Conoco (in turn owned by Dupont), whose refineries are the pipeline's main customers. The two cents per gallon YPL expects to save with a new pipe will improve its competitiveness in the regional fuel-shipping battle, and maybe assure jobs in Billings and fuel in Spokane for another generation.
Ninemilers, however, say that the refineries will stay open and Spokane will get its fuel, pipeline or not. They're betting on not. "Are we ever going to be done with this?" asks Picciano. "Our kids will be fighting this."
Ken Hunter says Yellowstone Pipeline's Camas Creek spill irreparably damaged the land where he holds sweat lodges. Photo by Yukari Usuda.
If the company gets its way, YPL could run its pipeline pumping a million gallons of fuel a day along the ridgetop behind Reed Smith's property. Photo by Jeff Powers.
YPL project manager David Vanderpool says the company plans to use new technology that will greatly decrease the chance of a catastrophic fuel spill. Photo by Jeff Powers.