Tue, Jul 05, 2011 - Page 7 News List

Exxon claims spill damage limited

‘PRETTY SILLY’:The governor of Montana dismissed claims from Exxon about the limited nature of the spill, demanding more personnel inspect the situation close-up


Authorities struggled to gauge the environmental and crop damage from tens of thousands of liters of oil that spilled into the legendary Yellowstone River, as Montana’s governor criticized Exxon Mobil for downplaying the possible scope of the disaster.

A break in a company pipeline near Laurel fouled kilometers of riverbank and forced municipalities and irrigation districts to close intakes across eastern Montana.

Exxon Mobil brought in more cleanup workers on Sunday to mop up crude at three sites along the flooded river that were coated with thick globs of crude. However, there was no word on how far the damage extended along a scenic river famous for its fishing and vital to farmers who depend on its water for their crops.

An Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) spokeswoman Sonya Pennock said its staff had spotted oil at least 64km downstream. There were other reports of oil as far as 160km away, near the town of Hysham.

Exxon Mobil Pipeline Co president Gary Pruessing said flyovers had shown most of the damage was limited to a 16km stretch of river. One of the company’s main cleanup sites was about 32km downstream of the break.

Montana Governor Brian Schweitzer dismissed Pruessing’s claim as premature. The Democratic governor said Exxon Mobil needed to get more personnel to inspect the situation close-up. He also slammed Pruessing’s statement 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. “The Yellowstone River is important to us. We’ve got to have a physical inspection of that river in small boats — and soon.”

Local media have carried photos of apparently oiled pelicans and turtles. Pennock said she cannot confirm any damage to wildlife or dead fish, but investigators were checking and she expected to know more as of yesterday.

About 120 Exxon workers arrived at the site on Sunday. The company estimated that up to 1,000 barrels spilled on Saturday before the flow from the damaged pipeline was stopped. An EPA representative said only a small fraction of the spilled oil was likely to be recovered.

State officials earlier reported a 40km-long slick headed downstream toward the Yellowstone’s confluence with the Missouri River, just across the Montana border in North Dakota. Authorities had no further reports on that slick, and Pruessing said the oil appeared to be evaporating and dissipating as the Yellowstone carries it downstream.

Pruessing also said that the pipeline had been temporarily shut down in May because of concerns over the rising level of the Yellowstone. He said the company decided to restart the line after examining its safety record and -deciding the risk was low.

The US Department of Transportation, which oversees pipelines, last year issued a warning letter to Exxon Mobil that cited seven safety violations along the ruptured Silvertip pipeline. Two of the warnings faulted the company for its emergency response and pipeline corrosion training.

Department spokeswoman Patricia Klinger said the company had since responded to the warnings and the case was closed.

The company and government officials have speculated that high waters in recent weeks may have scoured the river bottom and exposed the pipeline to debris that could have damaged the pipe.

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