Exxon Mobil Oil Pipeline Ruptures Under Montana’s Yellowstone River

Buffalo calf along Yellowstone River, Sept. 2008 (Flickr's TomMayNC)

We’re just learning about an Exxon Mobil oil spill in Montana’s Yellowstone County. Officials are now scrambling to protect the communities and wildlife that depend on the Yellowstone River:

Hundreds of barrels of crude oil spilled into Montana’s Yellowstone River after an ExxonMobil pipeline beneath the riverbed ruptured, sending a plume 25 miles downstream and forcing temporary evacuations, officials said.

The break near Billings in south-central Montana fouled the riverbank and forced municipalities and irrigation districts Saturday to close intakes.

The river has no dams on its way to its confluence with the Missouri River just across the Montana border in North Dakota. It was unclear how far the plume might travel.

Exxon Mobil is currently estimating the gusher at about 42,000 gallons of oil (1,000 barrels). The oil is moving downstream at 5 to 7 miles an hour.

Oil in Montana's Yellowstone River (NWF's Alexis Bonogofsky)

UPDATE: NWF’s Alexis Bonogofsky lives on the Yellowstone River in Montana and passes along this account:

The pipe ruptured Thursday night at around 11:30. I woke up around 7:45 and went outside to do chores (let goats out to graze, feed and water chickens, let horses out etc.). I walked down to our bottom pasture because the River was supposed to flood and I wanted to see if it had come over its banks. Sure enough, there was about 2 feet of water in the pasture. I got this overwhelming smell of hydrocarbons (very distinct smell especially around here because there are 3 refineries). I checked our local paper and saw that a pipeline had ruptured. Even though this had been going on for over 7 hours, and we are right on the River, we received no call, no warning..nothing. I had to find out about it by seeing it in our pastures. Apparently they evacuated people further up stream that were closer to the pipeline.

I spent all day yesterday calling our Montana Department of Environmental Quality who told me to call my local Department of Emergency Services. When I called DES, I got an answering machine that said they were on vacation. I was told repeatedly to call an Exxon hotline where the people that answered knew nothing about cleanup, if the oil is hazardous (which it is) and what was going on. They were just there to “take our information.” I called our County Health Department because they told people that the oil was just an “irritant.” When I talked to the lady there, she told me they were taking their information directly from Exxon and had done NO independent research on the health effects of exposure to crude oil or the chemicals in it.

Oil in Montana's Yellowstone River (NWF's Alexis Bonogofsky)

I saw birds trying to take off that couldn’t because of oil on their wings, I saw a spiny soft shell turtle dive into a glob of oil.

The government is telling us that Exxon is going to take care of everything and that they are doing oversight. I have seen no indication of this. I have called so many people that I know more than our government does about what is going on. We finally got a public relations person from Exxon to call us and he wouldn’t tell us what chemicals are in the oil or if any had been added. He told us to stay away from it and that we shouldn’t document the effects on the property “just to be safe” and yet no health warning has gone out to the public. They also told me “off the record” that I should move my livestock away from where the spill has impacted our farm.

There is a press conference sometime this morning with our DES and EPA and Exxon. We are going to go. Our summer pastures are ruined.

While the oil and gas industry likes to paint spills like this as an aberration, the National Wildlife Federation has documented that oil and gas disasters are tragically common:

According to the report, from 2000 to 2010, the oil and gas industry accounted for hundreds of deaths, explosions, fires, seeps, and spills as well as habitat and wildlife destruction in the United States.  These disasters demonstrate that the BP incident is not merely an accident but an industry pattern that places profit ahead of communities, local economies, and the environment.

Now the oil industry wants to build a new pipeline cutting right through America’s heartland. The Keystone XL pipeline wouldn’t carry just any oil – it would carry tar sands, one of the dirtiest fuels on the planet.

But we still have a chance to protect the people and wildlife along the proposed pipeline route. Please take a moment right now to ask President Obama to say no to tar sands.

UPDATE #2: Tuesday’s post has more information on how far the oil has spread & an update on Alexis.