Larry Mayer / The Billings Gazette / AP

Second crude pipeline spill in Montana wreaks havoc on Yellowstone River

Environmental damage from recent oil leak ranges from contaminated water supply to polluted farmland

GLENDIVE, Montana — When an oil pipeline burst in July 2011 and poured 63,000 gallons of crude into the Yellowstone River 200 miles upstream from Dena Hoff’s farm of wheat, beans and corn on the Great Plains in Glendive, she felt disgusted.

When it happened again Saturday, she felt terror. This pipeline breach was underneath the Yellowstone River, just a few feet from her sheep pasture. The new spill poured out some 50,000 gallons of crude oil. Leaders of this small riverside farming and ranching community in northeastern Montana warned residents not to drink their tap water, because benzene, a carcinogen, was found in the municipal water system. Oil slicked the river for dozens of miles, almost to the border with North Dakota. Hoff’s property smelled sickeningly like diesel.

“People need to understand this is a very serious thing,” she said. “It impacts everything and everybody downstream.”

Certainly the disaster is far more than just a local issue. As more than 100 emergency workers hacked at thick river ice in a frantic attempt to find and contain the spilled oil, the U.S. Senate in Washington made good on what its new Republican leaders promised would be their first order of business: approving the Keystone XL pipeline, which would also cross the Yellowstone River in Glendive.

“The State Department has affirmed the safety of Keystone XL pipeline,” said freshman Sen. Steve Daines, R-Montana, who was joined in his support by senior Sen. Jon Tester, D-Montana. “It’s important that this job-creating project is approved.”

‘People need to understand this is a very serious thing. It impacts everything and everybody downstream.’

Dena Hoff

Glendive resident

But that might not be so straightforward. In its similarities to the January 2014 chemical spill in West Virginia’s Elk River and the 2012 tar sands pipeline spill in Michigan’s Kalamazoo River, Montana’s latest Yellowstone River spill wrenched focus back to Keystone’s risks.

While President Barrack Obama has vowed to veto Keystone, the enthusiasm of its boosters has left many who live in its path worried that it will still be built, possibly at the expense of vital infrastructure upkeep and without sound contingency plans for spills. The scene in Glendive offered them no comfort.

“This is bad,” said Irene Moffett, 79, who ranches and farms on a vast bench of grass above the Yellowstone River in Glendive. “But it’s nothing compared to what they want to put in.”

The 12-inch-diameter Poplar Pipeline spilled on Saturday morning. By Monday night, Glendive residents cleaned local grocery store shelves of bottled water as news spread that health officials had found benzene levels in the municipal water treatment plant at two to three times what the Center for Disease Control says is safe for long-term exposure.

Some elderly residents reported not having anything to drink to take medication. People who had drunk from their taps complained of stomachaches. Hospital and schools struggled to keep their charges hydrated and safe. Some businesses were forced to cut back services or close. People fled town to do laundry or take showers.

Not until Tuesday morning did the first pallets of clean, bottled water from Bridger Pipeline, owner of the Poplar Pipeline, arrive in Glendive. They were dispensed first to hospital, schools, nursing homes and the prison. Then they to went to other residents.

Bill Salvin, a spokesman hired by Bridger Pipeline who also fielded calls on Tuesday for the county government’s emergency services command center, said the delay was due to “a matter of logistics.”   

Residents line up to receive drinking water from a distribution center in Glendive, Jan. 20, 2015.
Matthew Brown / AP

The ruptured pipeline was built in the 1950s, he said, and was last tested in 2012. The results of that test are unknown. A news station in Billings, KTVQ, reported that another one of the four pipelines owned by Bridger Pipeline recently leaked thousands of gallons of oil in North Dakota, costing the company tens of thousands in fines.

Salvin had no estimate for the cost of cleaning the new spill, but he said most of the oil is trapped under ice. “We will have all the resources we need,” he said.

Glendive Mayor Jerry Jimison said the spill underscores the outsize burden shouldered by local communities in the midst of oil booms. Glendive lies on the edge of the Bakken Shale formation, a vast oil reserve that spans eastern Montana, western North Dakota and southern Saskatchewan. A decade-old surge in drilling, much of it done by hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, has attracted tens of thousands of workers. This lowered unemployment regionally, and some economists say fracking has made the cost of gas plunge nationally. But the huge boost in production wore down local infrastructures, and some eastern Montana residents say they now bear that cost in the form of Bakken chemicals in their water.

“Eastern Montana provides a tremendous amount of the state’s income, and we here deserve the same benefits of clean drinking water,” said Jimison, 68. “The No. 1 issue for the city is to get that rectified.”

It could be at least a week until it’s safe for the town’s 6,000 municipal water users to use their taps again, he said. A similar problem is now chronic in the nearby town of Poplar, on the Fort Peck Indian Reservation. In 2010 the EPA ruled that Poplar’s municipal water had turned too toxic to drink because of pollution from oil drilling.

However, pipeline proponents stress that modern infrastructure is more secure than ever and that pipelines remain the safest way to move mass amounts of oil. Richard Dunbar, president of the Montana Association of Oil, Gas and Coal Counties, said the Glendive spill should actually serve as a selling point for Keystone.

“Well, this is what we have on the new pipeline as opposed to what we have on the older one,” said Dunbar, a commissioner in Philips County, Montana, where Keystone would enter the U.S. “Show all the updated safety features.”

‘Eastern Montana provides a tremendous amount of the state’s income, and we here deserve the same benefits of clean drinking water. The No. 1 issue for the city is to get that rectified.’

Jerry Jimison

mayor of Glendive

But Alexis Bonogofsky, an environmental activist and farmer, said she has learned not to believe safety claims about pipelines. She was hospitalized for hydrocarbon exposure after the 2011 rupture of ExxonMobil’s Silvertip pipeline, and she then watched her land along the Yellowstone River south of Billings lose hay, fill with weeds and feed fewer goats.

“This land is not the same as it was before, and we aren’t sure it ever will be,” said Bonogofsky, 34. “I wish I could be surprised that there is another spill in the Yellowstone, but I’m not. It’s not a matter of if. It’s a matter of when.”

Jeff Farrells, 62, the executive director of the Pipeline Association for Public Awareness, said that while new pipelines are safer than old ones, they are far from infallible. “Nothing’s perfect. I wish it was,” he said. “Is it worth the risk? The answer to that question in the past in this country has always been yes.”

He added that the spill happened less than a month before a training session his association scheduled in Glendive on how to deal with a major spill.

The scenic undammed Yellowstone River is “the last major wild river in the Lower 48,” said Scott Bosse, the Northern Rockies director of the conservation group American Rivers. From its headwaters high in a mountainous Wyoming wilderness south of Yellowstone National Park to its confluence with the Missouri River on the prairie of North Dakota, the nearly 700-mile river is home to an abundance of wildlife, including trout, eagles, grizzly bears, buffaloes, elk, otters, antelopes and moose.

Near Glendive, the river hosts the rare pallid sturgeon and also paddlefish, a prehistoric giant whose ecological fate is bound to Glendive’s prosperity. In recent decades, as supply dropped in Asia, caviar from Glendive’s paddlefish has surged in value. The black roe of a single one can sell for $1,000. The Glendive Chamber of Commerce markets this caviar to fine restaurants in Tokyo, Paris and New York. It has invested more than half a million dollars in proceeds on parks, youth sports and museums.

The spill has put the fish in jeopardy, said Bob Gibson, a spokesman for Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks.

“Any kind of petroleum chemical, one of the places that accumulates is in the roe,” he said. “We have biologists out on the ice trying to figure out what’s happening.”

Fossil fuel extraction drives carbon emissions and exacts a toll on the nearby environment.
Neda Djavaherian

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