Exxon Oil Spill in Yellowstone
Written by Andrew Sarski on July 5, 2011
Impact of the ExxonMobil Oil Leak
The rupture of the 12-inch diameter pipe, which occurred near Billings in south-central Montana, was believed to be caused by high river waters which may have gouged out the river bed and exposed the pipe, which could have then been damaged by debris. One hundred and forty people located downstream in the Laurel area, twelve miles west of Billings, were evacuated on Saturday in the face of concerns about possible explosions and overpowering fumes. Residents were allowed to return to their homes the same day after fumes had decreased. The ExxonMobil pipeline, which Exxon says was buried six feet below the riverbed, carries crude oil from Belfry, Montana to the company’s refinery in Billings, Montana. The devastating break fouled the Yellowstone riverbank and forced municipalities and irrigation districts to close intakes.
Three oil refineries are located in the Billings area, and all three were asked to turn off the flow of oil in their pipelines under the river once the leak was reported. According to the Laurel fire chief, both ExxonMobil and Cenex Harvest Refinery immediately shut down, and Conoco Phillips said its pipe was already shut down. The area of the Yellowstone where the pipeline rupture occurred is about 250 yards wide, and the oil slick appears to be about twenty feet wide.
Plans for ExxonMobil Oil Spill Cleanup
The ExxonMobil Pipeline Company issued a statement reporting that the company “deeply regrets this release” and has employed a team to help clean up the massive oil spill. Residents of towns located on the Yellowstone River have suffered severe consequences resulting from the pipeline rupture. Besides the overpowering smell of oil which has permeated the air for miles downstream and throughout the city of Billings, several properties have been damaged, including a man living just downstream from the break, whose riverfront property has been covered by a 600-foot-long smear of black oil. Cleanup crews have put out absorbent material along stretches of the river in Billings and near Laurel, but there have not yet been any attempts to capture oil farther out in the river.
According to the Montana Disaster and Emergency Services, the oil plume was measured at twenty-five miles near Pompeys Pillar National Monument. The fire chief for the city of Laurel warns that unstable Yellowstone banks and rapidly flowing water has kept anyone from getting close enough to see the pipe, which ExxonMobil says has been capped off. Due to record rainfall in the past month and a large amount of melting snow in the mountains, widespread flooding has affected the area in recent weeks. According to the fire chief, the Yellowstone hasn’t been this high in at least fifteen years.
The Aftermath of the Pipeline Rupture and Potential Health Risks for Consumers
The ruptured ExxonMobil pipeline was previously shut down in May 2011 amid concerns that it could pose a risk as the Yellowstone started to rise. After examining the line’s safety record and deeming it safe, the company decided to restart the line. In July 2010, the U.S. Department of Transportation notified ExxonMobil of seven potential safety violations and other issues along the pipeline. Two of the warnings faulted the company for inadequate emergency response and pipeline corrosion training. Furthermore, in February 2011, ExxonMobil was cited for probable violations including inadequate pipeline markers in a housing development, and a line over a canal not properly protected against corrosion.
Immediately after the oil spill last Friday, ExxonMobil downplayed assertions from state and federal officials that damage from the spill was spread over dozens of miles, but the company finally admitted under political pressure that the scope of the leak could extend far beyond a ten-mile stretch of the river. Rising waters have made it exceedingly difficult for ExxonMobil to reach areas damaged by the oil spill and, if another surge of water pushes oil further into back channels as expected, it would pose a potential threat to fisheries. In addition, the Environmental Protection Agency has announced that officials are taking water and air samples to determine potential impacts of the oil spill, including health risks. One woman exposed to the potentially harmful oil spill was diagnosed Monday with acute hydrocarbon exposure after she experienced nausea, dizziness and trouble breathing. According to Montana Governor Brian Schweitzer, “The parties responsible will restore the Yellowstone River.”