Climate

Thousands Of Montanans Can’t Drink Or Cook With Tap Water Because Of Oil Spill

CREDIT: AP Photo/Matthew Brown

Cleanup workers cut holes into the ice on the Yellowstone River near Crane, Mont. on Monday, Jan. 19, 2015 as part of efforts to recover oil from an upstream pipeline spill that released up to 50,000 gallons of crude.

The estimated 50,000 gallons of crude oil that spilled from a pipeline into Montana’s Yellowstone River Saturday has forced truckloads of water to be shipped in to one Montana city, after traces of the oil were found in the city’s water supplies.

Residents of Glendive, Montana began reporting an unusual odor coming from their taps Sunday night, even after initial tests of the city’s water supply on Saturday and Sunday didn’t reveal traces of oil. Late Monday night, the Environmental Protection Agency confirmed that the oil had reached the drinking water supply of the town, which is home to about 5,000 people. The spill occurred after a break the Poplar Pipeline, which carries Bakken oil from Canada to Baker, Montana. Officials are advising Glendive residents not to drink or cook with their tap water.

“The initial results of samples taken from the City of Glendive’s drinking water system indicate the presence of hydrocarbons at elevated levels, and water intakes in the river have been closed,” the EPA said in a statement. The agency said it is working with Montana agencies and Bridger Pipeline LLC, the company in charge of the pipeline that leaked oil into the river, to “secure alternative drinking water supplies for residents and develop a plan to flush the water distribution system.” The EPA will continue sampling the city’s water over the next few days.

Montana Gov. Steve Bullock declared a state of emergency Monday morning in Dawson — where Glendive is located — and Richland counties.

Glendive City Council member Gerald Reichert told the Grand Forks Herald that he didn’t believe the reports of odors coming from residents’ taps until he smelled it in his own home.

“Suddenly at our house there was a definite smell. It was a diesel smell,” Reichert said Monday afternoon.

Bridger Pipeline is planning to bring water into the city every day until the water system is free of oil.

The EPA also said in the statement that it was working to limit the spill’s spread by placing containment structures about 30 miles downstream from the spill site. It’s also trying to clean oil from the ice-covered parts of the river, but those icy conditions are making it difficult to find the oil that may have made its way underneath the ice. Cleanup crews are boring holes in the ice and attempting to vacuum up any oil they see underneath, and in total, about 50 people are working to contain and clean up the spill.

“These are horrible working conditions to try to recover oil,” Paul Peronard, the EPA’s on-scene coordinator told the AP Monday. “Normally you at least see it, but you can’t see it, you can’t smell it.”

The Yellowstone River has endured oil spills before: in 2011, ExxonMobil’s Silvertip pipeline, which was buried below the Yellowstone River, broke, spilling more than 63,000 gallons of oil into the river. But Saturday’s spill’s impact on Glendive’s drinking water also draws comparisons to other spills and contamination events over the last year that shut down tap water for nearby residents.

In August, more than a million gallons of mining waste spilled into rivers and creeks in British Columbia after a tailings pond breach, causing water-use bans to be implemented for people living nearby multiple bodies of water. Also in August, a toxic algae bloom contaminated the water of 400,000 people in Toledo, OH. And last January, 10,000 gallons of crude MCHM, a chemical used by the coal industry, spilled into the Elk River in West Virginia, contaminating the drinking water supply of 300,000 people.