Friday, July 8, 2011

Oil Spill In Montana River Forces Evacuation

An ExxonMobil pipeline that runs under the Yellowstone River near Billings in south-central Montana ruptured and dumped an unknown amount of oil into the waterway, prompting temporary evacuations along the river Saturday morning.

Company spokeswoman Pam Malek said the pipe leaked for about a half-hour, though it's not clear how much oil leaked.

The cause of the rupture in the pipe carrying crude oil from Belfry, Mont., to the company's refinery in Billings wasn't known.

Brent Peters, the fire chief for the city of Laurel about 12 miles east of Billings, said the break in the 12-inch diameter pipe occurred late Friday about a mile south of Laurel.

He said about 140 people were evacuated starting about 12:15 a.m. Saturday due to concerns about possible explosions, and the overpowering fumes. He said they were allowed to return at about 4 a.m. after instruments showed fumes had decreased. He said more evacuations occurred farther downstream outside his district but those numbers weren't immediately clear.

In a statement Saturday, ExxonMobil said it was sending its North American Regional Response Team to the area to help with cleanup work, and that state and federal authorities had been alerted to the spill from the pipe belonging to the ExxonMobil Pipeline Company.

The company "deeply regrets this release and is working hard with local emergency authorities to mitigate the impacts of this release on the surrounding communities and to the environment," the statement said.

A 600-foot-long black smear of oil coated the riverfront property of Jim Swanson just downstream from where the pipe broke.

"Whosever pipeline it is better be knocking on my door soon and explaining how they're going to clean it up," Swanson said as globules of oil bubbled to the surface of the river. "They say they've got it capped off. I'm not so sure."

By midday Saturday, two cleanup crews were putting out absorbent material along short stretches of the river in Billings and near Laurel. There appeared to be no attempts at capturing oil farther out in the river, and the smell of oil permeated the air for miles downstream and through the city of Billings.

ExxonMobil officials said cleanup crews of up to about 140 workers were expected to arrive in the area with 36 hours.

"Nobody's been able to lay their eyes on the pipe," Peters said. "Right now the Yellowstone River is at flood stage. The bank isn't stable enough for anybody to get close."

The cause of the break is not known, but Peters and Malek said speculation involves high water flowing through the river that might have gouged out the river bed and exposed the pipe, which was possibly hit by debris.

"I haven't seen it this high for at least 15 years," Peters said.

Jeb Montgomery, with the ExxonMobil Pipeline Company, said the pipe was buried six feet below the riverbed.

The state has received record rainfall in the last month and also has a huge snowpack in the mountains that is melting, which has resulted in widespread flooding in recent weeks.

Three oil refineries are in the Billings area, and Peters said he asked all three to turn off the flow of oil in their pipelines under the river once the leak was reported. He said ExxonMobil and Cenex Harvest Refinery did so, and that Conoco Phillips said its pipe was already shutdown.

He said the river where the leak occurred is about 250 yards wide, and that early Saturday morning an oil slick appeared to be about 20 feet wide.

"That was the farthest my flashlight would reach," he said.

Laurel, which has a population of about 6,500, is known for a huge Fourth of July fireworks display put on by the fire department, which has its own pyrotechnics crew. Peters said the town can swell to as many as 50,000 people for the event.

He said the fire department plans to hold the event on Monday.

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