Oiled, soiled and spoiled

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



Riverside Park baked under a harsh central Montana sun on Aug. 6, 2010. Wind howled through groves of cottonwoods along the Yellowstone River, swirling eddies of cotton past RV pads, a concrete boat ramp, a playground and a volleyball court. By mid-afternoon, thunderstorms were rolling in across the prairie.

A string of officials gathered on the river’s south bank, embroiled in a discussion about the erosion at work that summer. They represented the City of Laurel, the Army Corps of Engineers, the Williston Basin Interstate Pipeline and pipeline subsidiaries of Cenex, ConocoPhillips and ExxonMobil. The flow of the Yellowstone had already dropped 40,000 cubic feet per second from its crest in early June, but the meeting wasn’t exclusive to the 2010 flood season. Erosion on the Yellowstone’s south bank at Riverside Park had locals concerned about the long-term integrity of several oil and natural gas pipelines extending beneath the park and the river. The city asked for help from one or all of the represented companies in fortifying the south bank against additional erosion, to protect the river, the Laurel community and the environment downstream against a potential catastrophe.

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Laurel had reason to worry about floodwaters. Little more than a year earlier, an 8-inch natural gas pipeline failed when flooding scoured the riverbed and exposed it to the elements. The pipe ruptured at a girth weld, releasing a geyser of natural gas from the surface of the river. Emergency responders evacuated locals along the Yellowstone in Laurel and temporarily shut down nearby roadways. It took several hours for operators at the Williston Basin Interstate Pipeline Company to close the pipeline’s valves. The company responded to the rupture by replacing the failed line with a 16-inch pipe buried even deeper beneath the riverbed.

The public safety and environmental concerns from that incident would eventually pale in comparison to the events of the following year, both in Montana and nationally. In April 2010, BP’s Deepwater Horizon platform off the coast of Louisiana exploded. Oil gushed into the Gulf of Mexico from an ocean floor wellhead for months at a rate of nearly 53,000 barrels a day. Eleven platform workers were killed, and in the weeks that followed, curtains of crude washed up on beaches and wetlands all along the coast. Photos of oil-drenched birds, skimmer ships and blackened containment booms dominated the public eye throughout the early summer. The incident, now realized as the industry’s largest-ever marine oil spill, highlighted the dangers of oil released into an ecosystem. The ruptured Deepwater wellhead was finally capped July 15.

Ten days later, on the evening of July 25, the Midwest experienced its own historic environmental disaster. Shortly before 6 p.m., a 30-inch pipeline beneath the Kalamazoo River near Marshall, Mich., ruptured, releasing a plume of toxin-laden tar sands crude being pumped south from Alberta. The pipeline’s owner, Enbridge Energy, originally estimated the spill at 877,000 gallons. The impacts were devastating—thousands of turtles, birds and mammals coated in oil, residents forced to drink bottled water for months, numerous lawsuits filed against Enbridge by locals and environmental groups.

Environmental Protection Agency crews later stated they recovered 1.1 million gallons of oil. The cleanup cost, originally estimated around $5 million, skyrocketed to $765 million by summer 2012.

If any of those incidents came up in conversation on the banks of the Yellowstone in Riverside Park Aug. 6, the exchange isn’t mentioned in a new investigative report released last month by the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration. The various officials disbanded before the weather turned sour, and the south bank remained unfortified despite repeated pleas to pipeline industry reps from the City of Laurel.

The meeting did reveal a key development in the community: Local officials were growing increasingly concerned about how floodwaters could alter the Yellowstone at Riverside Park. The conversations would continue right up to summer 2011, when plumes of oil would come to characterize the nation’s perception of the pristine waterway. But there was little in the hot central Montana air Aug. 6 to indicate that Riverside—once home to German and Japanese prisoners of war—would become ground zero in a chain of events leading to state and federal investigations, congressional hearings and a critical look not just at existing regulations but at the status of pipelines beneath waterways nationwide.

“Everything was black”

Alexis Bonogofsky rolled out of bed early July 2, 2011, put on her waders and strolled across her ranch to check on the goats. Her property runs for about a mile along the banks of the Yellowstone River, and the water was raging that morning. The hayfield, the summer pasture, patches of wetland—the flood had pooled in every low spot within a stones-throw of the river. Bonogofsky began wading across the hayfield. That’s when she smelled something peculiar, something putrid, something wholly out of place among the very cattails and cottonwoods she’d known since childhood.

She smelled oil.

As she edged closer to the adjacent pasture, her legs brushed past gobs of the stuff. Where the water lapped against grass, a line of black film had formed along the vegetation. But the worst was the smell.

“It was overwhelming,” Bonogofsky says.

Bonogofsky had no idea where the oil had come from. In hindsight, she says, it probably made sense that there were pipelines under the Yellowstone. Billings is home to several refineries, after all, among them ConocoPhillips, Cenex and ExxonMobil. But in all the years she’d lived on the property—childhood, back when her parents owned it, and the intervening years since her move back to Montana—she never gave much thought to any sort of industrial dangers.

She pulled out her phone and searched the web for some clue as to why her field was suddenly the site of an apparent environmental disaster. The Billings Gazette had a blurb about a ruptured oil pipeline in Laurel. She knew immediately that was it.

Bonogofsky called her partner, environmental activist Mike Scott, and together they herded their goats into a field closer to the house. The Gazette’s write-up included a number for landowners to call if they noticed oil on their property. It was an 800-number belonging to ExxonMobil. Bonogofsky called.

“The number was actually for an insurance firm,” she recalls. “You got to this operator and the operator took your information: name, number, what you were calling about. ‘Someone will get back to you right away,’ she tells me. And the person that calls me back is an insurance adjuster. It’s not even someone who says, ‘Hey, we think you should get away from the oil or get your livestock away from the oil.’ Nothing about safety. It was an insurance adjuster asking us what damages we had, and this was the first day. The river was still flooding, oil was still coming onto the property. And there’s this expectation that we were supposed to talk to somebody about what damages we had?”

What came next was a morning of phone tag. First Bonogofsky called Yellowstone County. She got an answering machine. It was Fourth of July weekend. Next she called the Montana Department of Environmental Quality. They told her to call her local emergency services number. Bonogofsky’s frustration began to grow. She and Scott spent the afternoon walking across their property, snapping photos and documenting the damage.

That evening, the local news showed footage of cleanup crews near Laurel. Bonogofsky and Scott piled into their truck and drove eight miles west to get answers. The first people they saw were sitting in lawn chairs next to a van on the side of the road, absorbent booms placed in the water near them to soak up the oil. She says they didn’t know much. It didn’t look to Bonogofsky like they even had adequate supplies to launch a sizable cleanup effort. She asked about her animals and whether they were in danger. The men told her, off the record, that she’d be wise to move livestock away from the contamination.

That was her first face-to-face encounter with anyone from ExxonMobil, Bonogofsky says.

Kit Charter’s story is strikingly similar. She and her husband live in Billings, but they have family property along the Yellowstone. When the news first broke July 2 that ExxonMobil’s Silvertip Pipeline had ruptured next to the south bank of Laurel’s Riverside Park, Charter drove to her spread to investigate. First she stopped off at the home of a close friend, George Nielsen. The smell of oil in his house was so overpowering, it nearly knocked Charter over. Nielsen felt sick, Charter says, so they left the house.

Health officials would later release a statement informing people that the fumes from the spill weren’t a major health concern. Shortly after the spill, Mike Scott told Huffington Post that Bonogofsky had been diagnosed with acute hydrocarbon exposure—typically a sign of hydrocarbon inhalation among residents in close proximity to oil spills. Symptoms include dizziness, nausea and trouble breathing.

Next Charter made the rounds of her riverside land. She used to let livestock graze the property, which had been in the family for about 100 years, but decided several years ago to restore the acreage to a pristine riparian state. She says they did it “for the birds and deer and fox and fish and bugs and whatever,” and they worked hard doing it too. What they found the morning of July 2 was startling.

“Everything was black,” she says.

The situation wasn’t any better at her cousin Kelly Goodman’s place. When the floodwaters finally began to subside, “the fence was black, the grass was black.” Charter still tries not to think about it. “You hate to bring back any of it, because then you’re mad for three days,” she says.

Answers weren’t easy to come by for landowners in the days after the Silvertip spill. Bonogofsky drove to ExxonMobil’s command center at the Crowne Plaza in Billings, but security guards turned her away.

“We wanted answers, like when is the cleanup going to start, is this dangerous, what are the health impacts, all this stuff,” Bonogofsky says. “So we went and we finally got a meeting with [ExxonMobil Pipeline Company President] Gary Pruessing. Because of that, I think, they sent a crew down to our place earlier than they would have.”

Exxon eventually replanted Bonogofsky’s hayfield. Last summer’s drought wiped it out again and now she has a field of dirt and no idea what to do with it. Hay was too expensive this fall. She had to sell some of her goats to get by. Worst of all is the emotional damage. Bonogofsky bought the ranch from her parents when she moved back to Montana. In a lot of ways, the Yellowstone is the very reason Bonogofsky came back home in the first place.

“It was bad, and it still is bad, and [for Exxon] to have this mentality of, ‘Oh, we can fix it’—no you can’t,” she says. “You changed the place, and we have to get it back.”

Bonogofsky says there are still black rings on the cottonwoods around her ranch, from where the oil soaked into the bark.

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  • Photo courtesy of Joan Churchill

“Severe environmental impact”

Several weeks after the August 2010 meeting in Riverside Park, city officials in Laurel contacted the federal Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration with concerns that future flood events could undermine the integrity of the pipelines under the Yellowstone. PHMSA promptly contacted the appropriate companies, focusing specifically on ExxonMobil—given that the other pipelines were either laid up or transporting natural gas. According to PHMSA’s new investigation report, the agency believed at the time that a failure in Exxon’s Silvertip line “would cause severe environmental impact.” Exxon responded by conducting a depth-of-cover survey of its pipeline crossing at Riverside Park. The company submitted its findings to PHMSA on Jan. 19, 2011, showing that the pipe was a minimum of 5.3 feet below the riverbed, or 1.3 feet more than the minimum federal requirement. Furthermore, Exxon claimed the bottom of the river hadn’t changed significantly since the company had conducted its last survey.

That survey occurred in 2002.

PHMSA cautioned Exxon that it should maintain vigilance in monitoring the Silvertip. But by spring 2011, Exxon’s new depth-of-cover data had put most concerns about the riverbed at ease. Attention shifted to the erosion along the south bank at Riverside, which PHMSA notes “was extensive and was continuing.” Heavy rains were causing the Yellowstone and other rivers in the state to swell quickly. On May 25, city officials in Laurel again emailed PHMSA with concerns about the impacts of seasonal flooding. Exxon shut down the Silvertip for five hours and assessed the site, but decided that daily drive-by checks would be adequate to gauge the state of the river.

Over the next few days, PHMSA started monitoring all pipeline sites across the state in response to rising flow rates. The agency contacted all of the major pipeline operators in an attempt to gather information on any potential problems. Floodwaters had begun to recede, but warmer temperatures were imminent. Snowpack to the west would be melting soon.

The primary concern for Laurel throughout the spring and early summer wasn’t necessarily the crossings under the Yellowstone itself. Officials were far more worried about the flood washing over the bank at Riverside Park and threatening the unprotected sections of pipeline there. On June 24, Exxon shut down the Silvertip a second time. Snowmelt had caused the river level to rise again, but Exxon resumed the flow of oil the same day after conducting another site visit. The company placed sand bags around its remote-controlled valve station in Riverside June 25 to protect to the facility. According to PHMSA’s investigation, “Exxon personnel state that they had no indications that the pipeline crossing in the river was exposed.”

PHMSA did conclude that Exxon “took reasonable precautions to address the flooding of the Yellowstone River in the spring and early summer of 2011.” The report goes on to state that the company “may not have known that the river bottom could change sufficiently to undermine their pipeline.” Laurel’s concerns in Riverside Park were gradually refined in spring 2011 to the erosion of the south bank and the continued safety of the park itself. But that fear clearly implies floodwaters were radically changing the river immediately downstream of the Highway 212 bridge.

Of the four pipelines running under the Yellowstone in the Laurel area, two transport natural gas—a substance that, if released, inflicts little immediate damage to the surrounding environment. A third, which at one time transported crude oil, had been purged with nitrogen and retired in early 2010.

The fourth pipeline, ExxonMobil’s Silvertip, was the only active crude oil line at Riverside Park in summer 2011.

A river named Yellowstone

Early on July 3, 2011, Tom Livers got a call from his office at the Montana Department of Environmental Quality telling him to get down to Billings as quickly as possible. He was assigned to coordinate the state’s response to the spill on the Yellowstone, a task normally assigned to the Montana Disaster and Emergency Services Division. He didn’t pack much; he thought he’d only be away from Helena for the span of a meeting or two. His wife got into the passenger’s seat. Their dog jumped into the back.

“When we first hit the river in Livingston, it was obvious that that thing was moving,” Livers says of the Yellowstone, which was surging at nearly 28,000 cubic feet per second. “It was bigger than I’d ever seen it in several decades of being here.”

The temperature in central Montana was working its way toward 100 degrees. More thunderstorms were on the way.

Livers spent most of the drive down to Billings on his Bluetooth, trying to figure out what technical expertise DEQ could bring to the table at the spill command center in the Crowne Plaza. His agency wasn’t set up for emergency response. None of its staff had training in the incident command system made standard at most governmental agencies in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. He was going to be a fish out of water, at least for a while.

But that wasn’t the main issue nagging Livers. He was thinking about the torrent he’d seen from the bridge in Livingston, and about the iconic name that river bore.

“One thing that kept going through my head on the drive down to Billings the first day was, ‘This river’s named Yellowstone, and it’s going to get a lot of attention—appropriately,’” Livers recalls. “Just given that it’s in Montana, it’s the Yellowstone River, did attract lots of attention both nationally and internationally.”

Over the next few weeks, Livers would interact with news crews and reporters from everywhere—The New York Times, Wall Street Journal, even Chinese Central Television.

Exxon had already mustered some 300 response personnel by the time Livers arrived at the Crowne Plaza. There were roughly 20 representatives from the EPA too, Livers says. Many of the spill specialists gathered in Billings had worked Deepwater Horizon together the previous year.

“I was watching a lot of reunions and old friends being reconnected,” Livers says. “But I think this was Exxon’s first big incident since Valdez, so they were really concerned.”

Livers remained in Billings for several days working to “plug” the state into the response operations, but he eventually got out to the actual spill site. First he toured the fringes, where floodwaters had swept pools of oil into oxbows, backwaters, essentially the entire riparian corridor. It had even reached low-lying hayfields and pastures for miles downstream. “The river was running so high you couldn’t get on it,” Livers says. “We got the first fast boats out on the water I think a week into it.”

The image that stuck with Livers most, though, came during his first flyover of the Yellowstone. Thick clumps of downed trees, shrubs and other flood debris in the river’s main channel had captured heavy deposits of the oil, and were steadily wicking it off.

“You’d see these debris piles dotted throughout the river, with long oil plumes stretching downstream from them,” Livers says. “I’ve never seen something that compared with that.”

On the ground, the oil coated scores of reptiles, amphibians and birds. The EPA specifically cautioned cleanup crews not to disturb eagles, as they could be fledging their young. Six specialists with the nonprofit International Bird Rescue, which has led bird rescue efforts in more than 200 oil spills since 1971, arrived in Billings July 3 to lend their expertise cleaning oiled wildlife. The group cared for 131 animals in all, including a Canada goose, a Coopers hawk, six leopard frogs and 109 Woodhouse’s toads. They also continued monitoring several partially oiled bald eagles throughout the summer.

Landowners became fed up with the lack of public meetings and information coming from Exxon officials in the first few days. They began descending on Laurel, pressing the city for answers. City Councilwoman Emelie Easton didn’t know what to tell them. Laurel had been worried for some time that flooding on the Yellowstone might result in an incident. But the reality of a pipeline spill came as a surprise nonetheless.

“I think the city, we were certainly in over our heads because nobody expected anything like this and there weren’t any local resources to depend on for cleanup let alone stopping the oil spill,” Easton says. “That in itself was overwhelming, and then all the claims of property being damaged way downriver … It was really a challenge to try to focus on the fact that we needed to make friends with the Exxon people who in turn had come into town saying, ‘Okay, we’re taking this over. We’re shutting you down.’”

The entire experience still weighs heavily on Livers. Oil spills were a thing that happened elsewhere in the world, not something that happened on the banks of the Yellowstone.

“We watched what happened in Kalamazoo, and it didn’t hit home,” Livers says. “I didn’t recognize we have similar risks here in Montana at the time.”

Controller A

He’s identified only as Controller A in PHMSA’s investigation. He was working console number two—otherwise known as the Montana Crude Pipeline System and Offshore Crude Oil console—at the ExxonMobil Pipeline Company’s operations control center in Houston July 1, 2011. At exactly 10:41 p.m., an alarm notified him that the Edgar Pump Station in Montana had automatically shut down. He pulled up data on pipeline flow rates and pressures, which showed a dramatic drop in suction pressure at the Edgar station. According to PHMSA’s report, the flow rate at Exxon’s refinery in Billings “also dropped from 2,300 barrels per hour to 300.”

The data seemed to indicate a leak in the line. At 10:47, Controller A shut down the pumps. At 10:50, he closed the valve at the Silvertip Pump Station that allows the flow of crude oil into the Silvertip Pipeline. At 10:57, he closed the Laurel valve, located on the north side of the Yellowstone River.

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  • Photo courtesy of International Bird Rescue
  • Specialists with International Bird Rescue clean an oiled Coopers hawk from the Yellowstone spill.

Controller A didn’t notice that the valve station located in Riverside Park had also experienced a drop in line pressure at 10:40. Nine minutes passed between that alarm and Controller A’s shutdown procedure. According to PHMSA, with 2,300 barrels flowing through the line per hour, the estimated discharge at that point would have been 381 barrels.

Controller A turned to a colleague, identified as Controller B, to “check what he was seeing.” At 11 p.m., Controller A contacted his supervisor to alert him of the situation. Seven minutes later, the supervisor instructed Controller A to reopen the Laurel valve and allow the oil in that portion of pipeline to drain into the Billings refinery. By 11:20, the supervisor was on a conference call with additional supervisors and technicians, who PHMSA’s report states felt the low suction alarm could have been triggered by a leak, a faulty transmitter or a number of other factors.

At 11:36 p.m.—56 minutes after the first alarm—Exxon finally closed the pipeline valves upstream of all river crossings. Gravity had been draining the Silvertip of oil for 46 minutes and 12 seconds. PHMSA’s calculations show that roughly 1,444 barrels of oil would have been released during that time; Exxon’s final spill volume was 1,509 barrels.

Exxon got a call at 11:45 that night from the Laurel Fire Department. City officials reported smelling crude oil in the vicinity of Riverside Park. Exxon immediately notified its refinery strike team, which set out for the riverbank around midnight.

Mayor Ken Olson got a call at home around that time informing him of an emergency in the park. He arrived to find the road a zoo—squad cars from the Yellowstone County Sheriff’s Office, Laurel Volunteer Fire Department vehicles, even an ambulance. Response teams put out the order to evacuate residents along the river. “Cenex called out their spill response team, so they were out poking around,” Olson recalls. “We could detect it was an unusual odor.” But with the park flooded with water, no one could get close enough to figure out exactly what had happened.

PHMSA’s investigation concluded that the line failed due to “excessive abnormal stresses” inflicted on the pipe by “bending forces, vibration, and debris accumulation.” The biggest hit Exxon took in the report was a critique of the company’s emergency shutdown procedures. Had those procedures required the controllers in Houston to immediately close the valves both upstream and downstream of the Yellowstone, PHMSA found that “the crude oil release volume would have been much less and the location of the release would have been identified more quickly.”

“The investigative report by PHMSA confirmed the Silvertip pipeline crossing exceeded the federal minimum depth of cover for the installation of a new pipeline in a river,” ExxonMobil Pipeline Company spokesperson Amber Gardner told the Independent by email. “We believe the procedures and training we had in place at the time of the incident complied with federal regulations.”

Buried early in PHMSA’s report is one more indication of the powerful forces at work on the bottom of the Yellowstone in summer 2011. The only other hazardous liquid pipeline at Riverside Park—the one that was purged of crude oil in 2010—also failed that year. “No one knew of this failure because the line remained submerged under the flood water,” PHMSA’s investigation states. “This line failure was discovered after the water receded in September.”

“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.

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  • 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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