ExxonMobil Pipeline Leaks 42,000 Gallons of Oil Into Yellowstone River

An ExxonMobil oil pipeline that ruptured 10 miles west of Billings, Mont., leaked nearly 1,000 barrels of crude oil into the Yellowstone River.

Exxon detected the leak on Saturday morning following a loss of pressure on pipeline and within seven minutes the pipeline pumps were shut down, the company said in a press release.

That did not, however, prevent nearly 42,000 gallons of crude oil to be spewed into the famed river.

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The 12-inch crude-oil pipeline runs from the town of Silver Tip to the three refineries at Billings, ExxonMobil said.

“We had no indications that there were any issues with this pipeline,” Gary Pruessing, the president of ExxonMobil Pipeline Co. (EMPCo), told reporters on a conference call Sunday.

The pipeline was inspected recently, in December, and it met all “regulatory requirements,” he said. In 2009, the company had run a robotic device along the length of the pipeline to identify any sign of damage, corrosion, or weakness; none was found, he added. “This is a very unusual event.”

It may not be very unusual if one goes by last year’s correspondence between the Texas energy giant and the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT).

The department, which oversees pipelines, last year issued a warning letter to ExxonMobil that cited seven safety violations along the ruptured Silver Tip pipeline. Two of the warnings faulted the company for its emergency response and pipeline corrosion training, reported The Associated Press.

Patricia Klinger, transportation department spokeswoman, said the company had since responded to the warnings and the case had been closed.

“We are bringing in experts from across the country to clean up the oil,” Puessing had earlier said, while maintaining that there was “very little soiling” of the river banks beyond the 10-mile mark. Montana Governor Brian Schweitzer contested this claim of the company president.

“This is a lot of wild country, and they haven’t any idea whether it’s 5 miles, 50 miles or 100 miles, they’re guessing,” Schweitzer, a Democrat, told Reuters in a telephone interview.

Schweitzer also criticized Pruessing for saying to reporters that no injured wildlife had been found.

“For somebody to say at this early stage that there’s no damage to wildlife, that's pretty silly,” Schweitzer said.

He asked small boats to be deployed to ascertain the full extent of the oil’s spread, a measure Exxon had earlier ruled out because the river’s turbulence made it unsafe to use boats. The company sent aircraft flights over the river to view the spill.

Schweitzer said he wanted “every foot” of the Yellowstone’s banks to be examined for oil, and he said that he expects Exxon and any other responsible parties to clean up the spill.

Sonya Pennock, an Environmental Protection Agency spokeswoman, said its staff had seen oil some 40 miles downriver during a fly-over Sunday, and there were other reports of oil as far as 100 miles away near the town of Hysham, AP reported.

A representative of the Montana Disaster and Emergency Services Division said that the company’s claim was reasonable but had not been independently verified.

Even as the cause of the leak remains unclear, the government and company officials speculate that the pipeline was damaged due to recent flooding of the river following heavy rains and snowpack melting in the mountains, which may have scoured the river bottom and exposed the pipe to debris.

Meanwhile, air monitoring has detected no threat to residents from the spill, Pruessing said. Municipal water systems also have shown no signs of infiltration by the oil, he said.

Earlier, some residents in the nearby town of Laurel were evacuated, but later allowed to return to their homes.

By Sunday end about 100 people were working on the spill, according to Exxon. Environmental cleanup firm Clean Harbors is on-site assisting with the early remediation efforts, it added.

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