Hundreds of barrels of oil released into the Yellowstone River

4 Jul

An Exxon Mobil oil pipeline that runs below the Yellowstone River in Montana ruptured on Saturday, leaking hundreds of barrels of crude oil into the river.

The clean-up operation is still in progress, with crews from Exxon Mobil, state agencies and the federal Environmental Protection Agency deploying booms, absorbent material and vacuum trucks as the 25 mile-long plume moves downstream at a rate of around seven miles per hour.

The pipeline was shut down within seven minutes of pressure loss occurring in the pipe, during which an estimated 750 – 1000 barrels (or 42,000 gallons) of oil were released into the waterway. Hundreds of local residents were evacuated along a 20 mile stretch of the river due to concerns about possible explosions and overpowering fumes. As the water in the river is at such high levels, many are concerned that once the water levels drop, it will leave the thin layer of oil that is currently floating in the surface of the water on the land. The flooding has also made the clean-up operation harder, as the oil is more difficult to track and recover.

The pipe was shut in mid-May over concerns about the seasonal flooding the river is currently experiencing, but the decision was taken to reopen it a day later after reviewing its audit records and deciding it was safe. The last audit that was carried out on the pipeline was conducted in December 2010 by the US Department of Transportation Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration. The report concluded that the pipe was five to eight feet below the riverbed. Since then there have been record rains in the area and melting snowpack flooded the river in May, which Exxon and government officials have said may have exposed the pipe to damage from debris.

The river is home to large numbers of rainbow trout. “If fish get oil on them, if they break the surface and get oil on them, it tends to plug up their gills and it often is fatal,” said Bob Gobson, of the Billings Fish, Wildlife and Parks Program.

In a statement released by Exxon Mobil, the pipeline company president Gary Pruessing said: “We recognise the seriousness of this incident and are working hard to address it. We will continue to add resources and are extremely grateful for the patience and assistance of local residents and authorities.”

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