Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Yellowstone Spill a Preview of Potential Keystone Disaster

At about 10am on January 17th, an oil pipeline in Billings, Montana spilled over 50,000 gallons of oil into the Yellowstone River near Glendive. Bridger Pipeline LLC issued a statement that it had shut down the 10 inch wide pipeline prior to 11am the same day. "Our primary concern is to minimize the environmental impact of the release and keep our responders safe as we clean up from this unfortunate incident," said vice president of the Bridger company. The "Poplar" system, which is part of a pipeline that runs from the Canadian border to Baker, Montana, carries 42,000 barrels per day and gathers crude from Bakken producers in Eastern Montana and North Dakota. The 55 year old pipeline was buried eight feet below the Yellowstone River at it's last inspection. According to a risk assessment report compiled by the Yellowstone River Conservation District Council in 2012, the pipeline posed a moderate risk of failure due to erosion along the bank of the south end of the river crossing, making it more vulnerable to being damaged. The report followed after the rupture of the Silvertip Pipeline near Laurel, Montana in 2011. The assessment pointed out changes in the path of the river near the site of the spill. These changes continued in 2014 with ice scouring the banks, leveling trees and significantly altering the course of the river.

Three other pipelines in Dawson County run near the Yellowstone River that were assessed in 2012, two of which were determined low risk. Williston Basin Interstate Pipeline Company owns a natural gas pipeline that runs under the river parallel to a railroad bridge upstream. The Williston pipeline was determined to be at high risk for damage due to erosion, which was to blame for the Bridger Pipeline leak. The Williston pipeline is secured by the railroad bridge abutment on both sides, but has experienced erosion issues for years.

The Billings Gazette reported on January 18th that "The area where the where it spilled was frozen over, and could help the impact," said Dave Parker, a spokesman for Governor Steve Bullock. "We think it was discovered pretty quick and it was shut down," Parker said. "The governor is committed to making sure the river is cleaned up." The EPA then told the Billings Gazette on January 19th that some of the spilled oil had become trapped beneath the ice in the river. The oil beneath the ice can't be seen and the ice was too thin to support the necessary cleanup equipment.

Thirty miles downstream from the spill, crews in Crane are cutting slots into the ice to shove sheets of plywood in to force the oil to the surface so it can be sucked out. The EPA's on-site coordinator Paul Peronard said that the cleanup site in Crane would act as a backstop. Cleanup efforts will be called off from recovering oil from an opening in the ice near the origin of the leak where ice is too thin. "If the ice isn't thick enough and we cannot operate safely, then we're not going to do it. The fact is, I'm not risking any lives," said Peronard.

Containment booms, vulnerable to damage from floating chunks of ice, are ineffective and the undersurface of the frozen river has slowed the progress oil from moving downstream.

Excavation crews were digging up sections of the pipeline on both banks of the river in an effort to retrieve oil that the federal Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety administration believed to be trapped in the ruptured pipeline.

Following reports of oily tasting drinking water and a water supply that smelled of petroleum, State and Federal officials ran preliminary tests that indicated some oil from the spill had leaked into Glendive's public water supply. Truckloads of drinking water were hauled into Glendive as a precautionary measure for the town's 6,000 or more residents while it determines if the pollutants found in the water are a health threat. "We don't know 100 percent yet that there's contamination on the system, but we are going to put out warnings to the residents of Glendive that they probably shouldn't be drinking the water until we get definite results back," Mayor Jerry Jimison said. In the mean time, Glendive's water treatment plant has stopped drawing water from the Yellowstone River. There's enough reserve water to last a few days, but eventually the community will have to draw water from the river again in order to maintain pressure. Engineers will determine how to clean the treatment plant and safely draw water from the oil contaminated river, said Peronard. Because Glendive's water intake is 14 feet below the river's surface and oil floats on top of the water, officials had assumed that the oil would pass over without interacting with the city's water intake. Glendive residents have reported that the water is not at all drinkable, and are leaving town to take showers and do their laundry. Water tests later showed the presence of benzene, a carcinogen, in the municipal drinking water. The first loads of bottled water went to schools, hospitals, nursing homes and the prison, then went to the residents. Bill Salvin, a spokesman for the Bridger Pipeline said that the water distribution to residents was delayed due to "a matter of logistics."

The Yellowstone River, America's longest undammed "wild" river enters North Dakota after passing through Sidney, then joins the Missouri River near Williston. The state of North Dakota has
dispatched an official to watch for signs of the oil on it's side of the border according to the Montana Department of Environmental Quality.

"Oil has made it into the river," said Bridger spokesman Bill Salvin. "We don't know how much at this point." The company's monitoring data suggests 300 barrels of oil spilled from the breach before safety valves that bookend the river's banks shut down the flow. But a mile section of the pipe also holds roughly 900 additional barrels, which the company is uncertain how much may have leaked into the river. Peronard said that an oil sheen was sighted near Sidney, 60 miles downstream of Glendive. Bridger Pipeline crews are still trying to determine the exact location of the breach. If it occurred on the bank, then some of the oil may be trapped in soil on the riverbank. "If it happened in the river, then it's all in the river," said Peronard.

The 2011 spill also occurred during extreme weather when an Exxon Mobil Corp. Pipeline ruptured, spilling 63,000 gallons of oil along 85 miles of riverbank during a flood in July. State officials are still trying to determine if oil could have been trapped by sediment and debris, settling into the riverbed. State and Federal officials intend to seek damages for the injuries to wildlife and natural resources from that spill, asking the company to also pay for long-term environmental studies and lost opportunities for fishing and recreation during and since the cleanup, on top of state and federal fines of up to $3.4 million. The company has said it spent $135 million on the cleanup and other work.

Meanwhile, in Washington DC, Senate Republican leader Mitch Mcconnell announced that his first order of business of 2015 in the GOP-controlled Senate is to introduce a bill to approve the Keystone pipeline, which has already received it's fair share of opposition prior to the Yellowstone spill.  "We'll be starting next year with a job-creating bill that enjoys significant bipartisan support," reports The Hill. The president however will likely veto the bill.

The path of the Keystone pipeline would not only run through the Yellowstone, but also the Missouri river, and the Ogallala Aquifer, which is essential to providing a water supply to the people and crops of Nebraska. The USDA's Natural Resources Conservation Service explains:

"...the Ogallala Aquifer supports nearly one-fifth of the wheat, corn, cotton and cattle produced in the United States. Underlying approximately 225,000 square miles of the Great Plains, water from the aquifer is vital to agricultural, municipal and industrial development, making up 30 percent of all groundwater used for irrigation in America."

Senator John Hoeven (R-N.D.) has said that the GOP will attach the Keystone Pipeline measures to apporpriation bills or other "must-pass" legislation if necessary.

This article was published by The Good Men Project on 2/5/2015:

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