MSNBC | July 7, 2011
Exxon Mobil came under fire on Wednesday from Gov. Brian Schweitzer, who said the oil giant had assured Montana that any spill on the Yellowstone River could be shut off in a few minutes.
Exxon Mobil, which was also responsible for the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil disaster in Alaska,had earlier also assured concerned regulators that the pipeline was buried deeply enough to avoid being damaged.
The cause of the pipeline failure remains under investigation. The prevailing theory is that the raging Yellowstone eroded the riverbed and exposed the line to damaging debris.
U.S. Department of Transportation documents show that after officials in Laurel, Mont., raised questions last year about erosion along the riverbank, Exxon Mobil in December surveyed its depth and said it was at least 5 to 8 feet beneath the riverbed.
Federal regulations require that pipelines be buried more than four feet beneath the water at stream crossings.
At an Environmental Protection Agency meeting Wednesday night, roughly 150 people showed up with questions about health risks, the duration of the cleanup, and whether the oil will permanently damage their livestock or property.
George Nilson, 69, said the fumes from oil that wash through his neighbor's property had been overwhelming. He said it took several days of calling a spill hot line before he got a response.
"Why the slow response," said Nilson, who lives outside of Billings. "I've been in it for five days now and the only way I can breathe is to have all the windows open."
An EPA representative said the agency may to indoor air sampling after hearing several complaints such as Nilson's.
When the river started to rise this spring and Laurel officials again said they were concerned, federal pipeline regulators contacted Exxon Mobil and were told by the company on June 1 that it was not at risk and was buried 12 feet beneath the riverbed.
Exxon Mobil Pipeline Co. president Gary Pruessing said Wednesday the company did not know where the 12-feet figure came from but was looking into the matter.
In normal weather conditions, about four feet below ground is a safe depth, but pipeline companies should be paying close attention to the safety of their pipelines given this year's unusual weather and record floods, said Brigham McCown, a former federal pipeline safety official who advises oil companies.
Instead it took nearly an hour for that to happen when a pipeline ruptured on July 1, releasing an estimated 42,000 gallons of oil into the longest undammed river in the U.S.
"We were told that there were automatic shut off valves and that it's not possible that it could run even a couple of minutes into the river before it shut off," Schweitzer told MSNBC, recalling how the state and Exxon Mobil ran a mock drill on the river last year.
Once the spill happened, "Exxon Mobil said to begin with that it had only run for six minutes and that it was controlled out of Houston, Texas," he added. "That grew to 30 minutes and then it's unclear if they're now saying 48 or 58 minutes."
U.S. Department of Transportation records indicate the pipeline was not fully shut down for 56 minutes after the break occurred Friday near Laurel at 10:40 p.m. local time. Emergency responders at the National Response Center were notified of the spill at 12:19 a.m.
The company said the longer timeframe did not change its estimate of how much crude entered a river famous for its fishing and vital to farmers for irrigation.
"The best thing they could do at this point is be completely honest," said Schweitzer. "It is clear that their veracity has not been 100 percent to this point."
On Monday, the company acknowledged under political pressure that the leak's impact could extend far beyond a 10-mile stretch of the river it initially said was the most affected area. The company had earlier downplayed government officials' assertions that damage was spread over dozens of miles.
The river has been flowing too swiftly for crews to reach some oiled areas, and forecasters said mountain snowmelt was adding to high water levels. Officials speculated that the surge may push oil into areas that haven't yet been damaged.
Most observations have been made through aerial flights.
Company and federal officials said they have only seen oil about 25 miles downstream from the site of the break near Laurel. But Schweitzer said he believes trace amounts have traveled hundreds of miles to North Dakota.
Schweitzer, who toured the area Tuesday said he told Exxon and federal agencies overseeing the spill response that the state alone will decide when the cleanup is done.
"The state of Montana is going to stay on this like the smell on a skunk," he vowed.
Schweitzer also ordered a review of pipelines that cross major and minor rivers in the state. Officials will look at the pipes' age, location of shut-off valves and whether they are similar to the ruptured pipe. He said the state has 88 such crossings.