Even before the Silvertip pipeline in eastern Montana ruptured in July, sending more than 40,000 gallons of crude oil into the Yellowstone River, Missoula officials were casting a wary eye much closer to home, toward the Yellowstone pipeline. Now, new data confirms that they've had reason to be worried.
The Clark Fork River is migrating. What was once a side channel between Milltown and Turah now carries nearly the entire flow of what is at times a wild and rushing river. The expanded channel flows just 2 feet 9 inches above the Yellowstone pipeline.
Federal regulations require that pipelines at river crossings be buried at least four feet under most riverbeds.
"We're very concerned about this crossing," says Missoula Valley Water Quality District Division Supervisor Peter Nielsen. "It's time to think about this and be prudent and get this thing fixed."
The 556-mile long Yellowstone pipeline carries as much as 66,000 barrels of gasoline and diesel and jet fuels daily from ConocoPhillips's Billings refinery into Missoula before it's transported to Idaho and Washington to fuel local communities along the way.
Missoula County officials fear that at the Yellowstone line's current depth, ice jams and next spring's runoff could make it more vulnerable to "scouring," which occurs when sediments are pushed downstream, essentially removing the pipeline's buffer and leaving it vulnerable to fast-moving debris.
A failure at the Turah Crossing would endanger the river and, potentially, Missoula's downstream aquifer.
"That, obviously, is a concern, because that's where some of the big production wells are for the community," Nielsen says. "We have a potential impact on our sole-source aquifer and our drinking water supply as well, if you have a major release...Gasoline, in particular—you're going to have potential contamination with substances that are in gasoline like benzene, which is a cancer-causing agent."
Those concerns prompted the Missoula Board of County Commissioners last week to advise Yellowstone Pipe Line Co., the line's operator, managed by ConocoPhillips, that if repairs aren't made before spring, the county wants it shut down.
"It would be in Missoula's best interest and everyone's best interest to shut it down if they can't get it fixed," says Missoula County Commissioner Michelle Landquist.
Missoula County is asking Yellowstone Pipe Line to bury the line deeper under the river to better protect it from scouring.
New directional drilling technology is significantly more advanced than the methods employed when most of Montana's pipelines were entrenched. It's capable of burying lines 25 feet under riverbed. According to the commissioners' letter, "Directional drilling appears to be the only acceptable long-term solution to place pipe deep enough to protect it from scour."
The county also states in the letter that it wants Yellowstone Pipe Line to install motorized shutoff valves, capable of stemming the flow of fuel if a pipeline fails. "Installation of a motorized bloc valve and check valve may be the most effective short-term measure that YPL can implement to protect against a catastrophic failure."
ConocoPhillips spokeswoman Romelia Hinojosa says the company is aware of Missoula County's concerns and will work to address them. "ConocoPhillips plans to add additional cover, before the spring, to protect the pipeline," she says. "We will take their suggestions under advisement."
According to Federal Department of Transportation data, the Silvertip pipeline outside of Billings was buried at least five feet under the Yellowstone River when it suffered a breach. That break is stillunder investigation. However, Montana Department of Environmental Quality Director Richard Opper, who chairs Gov. Brian Schweitzer's newly appointed Oil Pipeline Safety Review Council, charged with evaluating pipeline vulnerabilities in the wake of the Silvertip accident, says that scouring likely played a role.
"I would guess that it's no accident that the pipeline broke during the highest water flow in one of the highest flooding years I've seen since I've been in Montana for over 30 years," he says.
On Nov. 15, the Oil Safety Review Council—composed of Opper, Mary Sexton from the Department of Natural Resources and Conservation, and Department of Transportation Director Tim Reardon—examined preliminary findings from the Montana River Crossing Study. The federal Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration, charged with regulating fuel lines, compiled the report.
The Turah crossing of the Clark Fork River is one of several needing repairs. Seven major river crossings are vulnerable currently, according to the report, as are hundreds of smaller ones across Montana and Wyoming.
The PHMSA is threatening to shut lines down if repairs aren't complete before spring. In the hustle to get lines up to snuff before the snow melts, Missoula County wants to make sure the Turah crossing is prioritized.
"They've got pipelines all over the place that have problems, and there's only so many companies in the world that do this work," Nielsen says. "It's a vulnerable spot. We're not comfortable with it going through spring runoff in its current state."