Oiled, soiled and spoiled

What happened when Montana’s Yellowstone River turned black–and how that environmental disaster is influencing pipelines nationwide

| February 07, 2013

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“Not good enough”

As cleanup crews made their way along the Yellowstone River, Exxon set about securing an easement in Riverside Park to begin pulling the failed Silvertip line out of the waterway and replacing it. The initial agreement, according to Laurel City Council minutes, called for Exxon to pay the city $500 a day to accommodate the work. The amount was later increased to $1,000 a day. The agreement required Riverside Park to remain closed during the work period, originally scheduled for completion by Dec. 1, 2011.

Easton says it was irritating, almost insulting, to see Exxon throwing money around as if it could fix the mess the Silvertip had created.

Missoula Independent news
  • Photo courtesy of Alexis Bonogofsky
  • Alexis Bonogofsky and Mike Scott talk with officials on their flooded property in July 2011.

“It was frustrating to have a deep-pocketed company come along and try to buy good will,” Easton says. “There were some people [on the city council] who said, ‘That’s not good enough, that’s not going to satisfy the whole thing.’ Then there were some council members who said, ‘Well, let’s go ahead and milk this for all it’s worth.’”

In the months after Silvertip, Exxon made a number of such monetary gestures to local communities. The company even presented the Yellowstone County Sheriff’s Office a check for $51,000 Aug. 9 to purchase a new boat—a token of appreciation for the department’s quick response time during the spill.

Livers feels the spill put Montana on an unfortunate map. Even on scene in Billings, he felt he was witnessing an event with long-term ramifications. “In the wake of Deepwater Horizon and Kallamazoo, I think there was a sense that we were seeing something,” he says. “This is not a particularly old pipeline. That particular trench crossing was laid in ’91. That was concerning because we have no regulatory authority at DEQ over pipelines, but even as a resource agency we didn’t have a good sense how many crossings were out there.”

Indeed, in the weeks following the Silvertip rupture, the Indy was contacted by environmental activists on the Blackfeet Indian Reservation. A leak in a pipeline belonging to Salt Lake City-based FX Energy Inc. created a mile-long crude oil spill that seeped into Cut Bank Creek. The spill, which released as much as 840 gallons, went unreported for nearly a month.

The Silvertip incident had lasting implications for Exxon. Spilled oil fouled an estimated 70 miles of pristine river corridor along the country’s longest stretch of un-dammed waterway. Initial estimates of spilled oil from Exxon personnel ranged from 23,600 gallons to 42,000 gallons; the final total, according to Montana’s 2012 risk assessment report, was around 50,000 gallons. Exxon spent $135 million on its response, and remediation is ongoing. The company faces two separate district court lawsuits. In one complaint, landowners make repeated use of the phrase “oiled, soiled and spoiled” to describe the interruption to their agricultural livelihoods.

ExxonMobil Pipeline Company has since revised its remote control valve procedures and its operator training, in keeping with the conclusions contained in PHMSA’s report last month. The company re-drilled pipeline trenches under the Yellowstone at a rough depth of 40 feet and, according to Gardner, “will continue to work cooperatively with PHMSA on any follow up actions.”

PHMSA itself is now the center of much discussion about the need to revise federal pipeline regulations. In the wake of the Silvertip spill, U.S. Sens. Jon Tester and Max Baucus pressed the agency to conduct a comprehensive study of all pipeline crossings at inland waterways across the country. PHMSA finally presented that report to Congress this January, revealing that loss of cover due to flooding has been a factor in 16 hazardous liquid pipeline spills in eight states since 1991. PHMSA spokesman Damon Hill told the Indy that those results will play heavily in future discussions on what, if any, regulatory changes should be made.

Then-Gov. Brian Schweitzer was quick to wag the metaphoric finger at Exxon in 2011 for not shutting the pipe down more quickly. Within a few weeks, he’d created the Montana Oil Pipeline Safety Review Council, under the umbrella of DEQ. Schweitzer created the council to independently analyze the status of pipeline crossings on other bodies of water across the state. The results were troubling; federal and state officials found numerous inadequately buried pipelines crossing Montana streams and rivers—including additional sections of the Silvertip at Rock Creek and the Clark Fork.

The Silvertip spill even had a trickle effect with regards to TransCanada’s hotly debated Keystone XL Pipeline. Livers says DEQ revisited the proposal with a close eye to the location of shutoff valves, and found that TransCanada had positioned the valves at river crossings too far apart for comfort. “I don’t know if we would have really appreciated the significance of that had it not been for our experience on the Silvertip,” Livers says.

And down in Laurel, where it all began, Easton talks about what could be considered a silver lining in the city’s most tragic event. Laurel woke up in summer 2011, she says. The community’s more aware now of what the oil industry says and does.

“It is not so much a friendly handshake agreement situation like it was before,” she says. “Laurel is looking out more for itself and for the potential for accidents again. The City of Laurel grew up a lot...with regard to realizing that the city cannot be taken advantage of again.”

Exxon eventually increased its easement payments in Laurel to $1,200 per day. The Silvertip replacement project wound up taking longer than expected; the work bled into early 2012.

Laurel received a somewhat unexpected gift on Aug. 16, 2011. During a budget update before the city council, City Clerk Shirley Ewan announced that ExxonMobil had given Laurel an additional $300,000. The company awarded the grant to fund improvements in Riverside Park—specifically, to fortify the south bank of the Yellowstone River against future erosion.

Almost a year to the day since the 2010 meeting in Riverside Park, Laurel finally got the oil industry funding it had been seeking all along.

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