On Saturday morning, a pipeline in Montana spilled up to 50,000 gallons of crude oil into the Yellowstone River, the pipeline’s operator confirmed Sunday night.
Some residents are reportedly smelling and tasting oil in their drinking water, causing the EPA to test water samples and the city water plant to cease drawing water from the river.
The 12-inch diameter steel pipe breached and spilled anywhere from 12,600 to 50,000 gallons of oil nine miles upriver from the town of Glendive, with an unknown amount of it spilling into the partially frozen river, according to a statement from Bridger Pipeline LLC. The company said the spill occurred at 10 a.m. and they “shut in” the flow of oil just before 11 a.m. — meaning that though the pipeline section could still empty itself of its contents, no new addition oil would flow into the spilled area.
“Oil has made it into the river,” Bridger spokesperson Bill Salvin confirmed to the AP on Monday. “We do not know how much at this point.” Observers spotted oil, some of which was trapped under the ice, up to 60 miles downstream from Glendive. Paul Peronard, the EPA’s on-scene coordinator, said crews were attempting to use booms to prevent the spill from spreading further but the ice on top of the river was forcing them to “hunt and peck” through it.
This photo from the Billings Gazette shows the oil visible through the icy river from the air.
— Saulo Corona (@saulocorona) January 19, 2015
Clean-up crews were en route to the site on Sunday afternoon after local, state, and federal levels were notified. The pipeline sits at least eight feet below the river bed. There are concerns that the water supply could be compromised, though the City of Glendive Water Plant said on Sunday that nothing unusual had been detected.
“I am not saying the water is unsafe. I am not saying it is safe,” said Dawson County Disaster and Emergency Services coordinator Mary Jo Gehnert, according to MTN News. “We are waiting for officials to arrive who can make that decision.”
“We think it was caught pretty quick, and it was shut down,” said Montana Governor Steve Bullock spokesperson Dave Parker, noting that the river was frozen over near the spill, which could help isolate the spill.
Parker told MTN News that “the Governor is committed to ensuring that the river is completely cleaned up and the folks responsible are held accountable.”
In 2011, an Exxon Mobil pipeline spilled 63,000 gallons of crude oil into the Yellowstone near Laurel, Montana. Days after the spill, goat rancher Alexis Bonogofsky was hospitalized for acute hydrocarbon exposure after noticing oil slicks along the riverbank abutting her ranch. She lived far enough downstream that any evacuation order missed her, she said. There was concern then that the cause of the spill was related to climate-change-influenced raging floodwaters that exposed the normally deeply-buried pipe to damaging debris.
Even two years later, the state was still fighting with Exxon over damages to the area from the spill and the clean-up process, leaving fish, birds, and wildlife dead or injured and interrupting environmental studies, recreation, and fishing.
Bridger’s pipeline runs from the Canadian border down through Montana across the Missouri and Yellowstone rivers and east into North Dakota, dubbed the Poplar System. It is on the opposite side of Wyoming from, and downstream of, Yellowstone National Park, but the river empties into the Missouri River.
The proposed — and controversial — northern leg of the Keystone XL pipeline would be three times the diameter of the breached Bridger pipeline, and pump more than 34 million gallons of oil per day through the Dakotas down into Nebraska and into the southern leg in Oklahoma and Texas. Many landowners and local residents are concerned about what a potential spill would mean for critical watersheds and aquifers — not to mention what subsequent increased tar sands oil production means for Canadian watersheds.
This article was updated to reflect new information about the response actions and to correct an instance of a units error from barrels to gallons.