Oil cleanup continues on the Yellowstone River

The Gazette Staff
By Chelsea Krotzer

It's a rare site to see a closed runway at Billings Flying Service, but after an ExxonMobil pipe burst and spilled 42,000 gallons of crude oil into the Yellowstone River, the flying company's property has since turned into a hub for cleanup efforts.

Gary Blain, an owner of Billings Flying Service, said he was contacted by ExxonMobil officials about a day after the break.

His property, located on Jellison Road to the south of the Yellowstone River, provided enough space for the several hundred people that work that section of the river.

"It's a prime location," Blain said. "There's access to the river with boat launches, parking and staging facilities, and it's a private location."

Almost 600 people have been working around the clock since the pipe burst near Laurel on July 1, using almost 33,000 feet of boom and 16,000 absorbent pads to clean up oil collecting along the river banks, according to an ExxonMobil news release.

Crews were focusing on about 38 sites between the spill site in Laurel and Billings on Sunday.

Matthew Allen, Environmental Protection Agency public affairs officer, said used booms and pads are taken to a landfill in Bennett, Colo.

"It's a landfill under contract through Exxon to handle this type of thing," Allen said.

Most of the contracts related to the cleanup are determined ahead of time as part of ExxonMobil's emergency response plan, which in the case of the pipeline, is approved by the Department of Transportation.

What ExxonMobil has not completed is an approved long-term plan for the cleanup of the river.

EPA on-site coordinator Steven Merritt said the company submitted a removal action plan that was initially approved for three days.

"They submitted pieces and parts of what we are doing as a process out int he field right now, but it's not a comprehensive plan," Merritt said.

During a media briefing Sunday, Merritt said ExxonMobil had one week to complete their long-term plan. He said members of the EPA will meet with representatives from ExxonMobil and the Montana Department of Environmental Quality on Monday.

"It's got to be more flushed out and comprehensive than it was," Merritt said.

Three sections in particular were not complete, including the oil recovery and containment plan, source release area remediation plan and remediation plan for downstream impacted areas.

Other sections of the removal action plan that were complete include the heath and safety plan, sampling and analysis plan, Quality Assurance Project Plan and the waste treatment, transportation and disposal plan.

"These plans need to include how we get to the end point of all this," Merritt said.

Pius Rolheiser, spokesman for ExxonMobil, said "we certainly intend to reply with the request."

Cleanup continues

With more than a week of cleanup already under way, Merritt said Exxon started soil testing on Sunday. He said they will soon start cleaning oiled vegetation.

The priority from the start was human health and safety, including the river as a source of drinking water and checking domestic wells.

Testing for domestic wells is still ongoing, with results expected in three to five days, Merritt said. He does not believe there is a threat to humans or livestock.

"We haven't seen levels above drinking levels in the river, so we are not expecting it in the well systems," Meritt said, advising it was safe to well water at this time.

Because of the high river levels, cleanup and testing efforts have been difficult. Air boats have been able to scan slow moving water ways, but Merritt said they have not been able to launch jet boats into the channel yet.

National Weather Service meteorologist Joe Lester said the river dropped a foot since it hit flood stage late last week and was flowing at 11.7 feet on Sunday afternoon.

"It's dropping and continuing to do that," Lester said. "We are finally seeing an end to all the river flooding. There is less and less snow; it's still melting, but not as much."

Lester said they are forecasting the river to drop 1.5 feet over the next two days and another foot by the end of the week, as long as incoming thunderstorms don't bring excessive rain.

That's good news for the oil spill cleanup crew. With lower river levels, crews can take jet boats into the water in search for affected wildlife and safely walk the river banks looking for collected oil.

Merritt said that's when things become more labor intensive. He said a similar pipe break in Salt Lake City last year took three to five months.

"We want to do more good than harm," Merritt said. "We are cognizant this is a wilderness area."

The fate of oily plants depends on how much they are covered. People in the field are told to try and wipe oil off of trees and lightly oiled or very lightly oiled vegetation are to be left alone.

In those cases, crews would put an intake nozzle into the river, using a high volume of low-pressure water to wash off any oiled plants.

The washed-off oil would then be caught in an absorbent boom. Heavily damaged areas could involve excavation.

The lowering river levels will also give wildlife organizations an easier time to search for affected wildlife.

So far, only a snake and Western toad have needed to be cleaned from oil contamination. Several Canadian geese, a great blue heron and a white pelican showed signs of oil, but were not captured for cleaning.

"They were behaving normally," said Lisa Williams with the Department of Fish and Wildlife. "Our crews are in slow-moving areas by boat, on the land and in the air."

Blain is doing his best to work around the cleanup crews, who are using two of his airplane hangars for equipment storage.

They are also storing several containers in one of his wheat fields west of his airplane hangars. A large tent, used to serve meals, has been erected east of the hangars.

"These guys are trying to do the right thing," Blain said. "We as a community really need to support them. The floodwaters are not easy to work with. They really do need Montana's support right now."

Published July 11, 2011