An oil spill in Montana's Yellowstone River surged toward North Dakota on Sunday as outraged residents demanded more government oversight of Exxon Mobil's cleanup.
An oil spill in Montana’s Yellowstone River surged toward North Dakota on Sunday as outraged residents demanded more government oversight of Exxon Mobil’s cleanup.
An estimated 750 to 1,000 barrels, or up to 42,000 gallons, spilled overnight Friday through a damaged pipeline in the riverbed, Exxon spokesman Alan Jeffers said. The break near Billings could be related to the river’s high water level, officials said.
More than 100 people were working on the cleanup late Sunday, Jeffers said. But local officials said that, because of the raging floodwaters, only a handful of crews were laying absorbent pads and booms to trap oil along short stretches of the river between Billings and Laurel. In some areas, residents said, oil may be flowing underneath the booms and continuing downstream in the murky water.
Jeffers said most of the oil was believed to be within 10 miles of the spill site, and Exxon crews were flying over the area late Sunday to assess how far it had spread.
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But Montana’s governor disputed the estimate.
“Nobody can say definitively,” Gov. Brian Schweitzer said. “It’s too early. We need boats on the water,” not only flyovers. Boats were potentially unsafe because of the high water, however.
Oil was reported as far as 100 miles away near the town of Hysham, Yellowstone County Commissioner Bill Kennedy said.
Although the spill is downstream from Yellowstone National Park and the fertile Yellowstone fly-fishing grounds frequented by tourists, some officials worried about harm to the industry that draws 11 million annual tourists a year to a state with a population of 980,000.
“We take our rivers very seriously here in Montana,” said Schweitzer, a soil scientist who planned to visit the spill site Tuesday. “We will not allow this catastrophe to affect the $400 million trout industry in Montana.”
Schweitzer, a Democrat, said the Environmental Protection Agency had been working with state agencies to investigate the cause of the spill and would test air, water and soil samples. Exxon will be expected to pay for the cleanup so “everybody along that river is made whole,” he said.
But residents were worried.
“We can’t really tell what it’s going to do for our fisheries downstream,” Eric Beebee, 37, said as he worked Sunday at Bighorn Fly and Tackle Shop in Billings. “If it was going to affect anybody, it’s going to be the farmers and the ranchers because the water is pushed up so high, when it recedes [the oil is] going to be left on their land.”
Jeffers said he met with some residents Sunday and assured them that company tests, including air-quality monitoring, showed no cause for alarm.
“There’s no effort to withhold important information from the public,” he said. “We have not seen anything that causes public health concern.”
Exxon pipeline workers became aware of a problem around midnight Friday when pressure readings in the pipeline dropped, Exxon Mobil Pipeline Co. President Gary Pruessing said.
Workers turned off the pumps within six minutes, he said.
Exxon and government officials have said record rains and melting snowpack may have exposed the pipe to damage from debris.
“That’s just speculation at this point,” Jeffers said. “We don’t know at this point what caused [the spill].”
Some officials feared the oil would reach the Missouri River, just across the border in North Dakota.
“The water is fast and furious,” said Kennedy, the Yellowstone County official. “I’m hoping that we get it cleaned up and stopped before it even approaches there.”