DEQ director: Agency didn't follow Yellowstone spill recommendations

While requesting approval of a $62 million annual budget Tuesday, Department of Environmental Quality managers had to answer some difficult questions about the large oil spill near Glendive.

DEQ managers testified before the Natural Resources Appropriations subcommittee during the first of four days of testimony on their budget.

The state contributes about $6 million from the general fund for DEQ planning, permitting and inspections of mining, water treatment and air pollution controls, and for remediation costs for environmental contamination and spills when companies default.

Federal programs pay almost $25 million with special revenue making up the remainder.

But with a contentious U.S. Congress, federal money isn't guaranteed.

So permitting administrator John DeArment asked for two new budget items to fill potential gaps.

First, DEQ could need a quarter-million dollars for issues related to the Zortman-Landusky Mine in northeastern Montana. DEQ and the Bureau of Land Management took over reclamation after mining company Pegasus declared bankruptcy in 1998.

Due to mine waste, the state will forever have to treat about 400 million gallons of water a year for contaminants such as arsenic, cadmium and copper.

Project reclamation bonds pay most of the annual $2.5 million in water treatment costs.

About $700,000 comes from federal funds, but only about $500,000 of that is secure, DeArment said.

"This $250,000 request is a just-in-case request. If the feds don't come through for us, we have someplace else to get it," DeArment said.

The second request was for more than $800,000 in special revenue funds, most of which would go to reimburse energy and construction companies under the 1985 Montana Major Facilities Siting Act.

The law requires the state to research how different locations of energy-related facilities could minimize adverse effects on the environment.

"We don't have much ability to predict what's going to come through the door," DeArment said. "Right now, we're working on the Montana-Alberta Transmission Line - that's already been approved. There's a chance that the Keystone (Pipeline) could come through. This is our best guess on what we might need for the coming biennium."

But it was the Bridger Pipeline near Glendive, not the Keystone Pipeline, which prompted questions from the committee.

DEQ Director Tom Livers said responders have recovered about 500 barrels or 21,000 gallons of oil spilled from the Bridger Pipeline into the Yellowstone River.

"The recovery effort has been more successful than I would have expected. But there are about 700 barrels still out there that may not be recovered at this stage," Livers said.

The Glendive water system is still pulling water from the river even though there's still oil upstream because it's the town's only source of water for firefighting or other needs.

They've brought in additional filtering equipment and aerators to deal with toxic contaminants such as benzene.

The concentration of benzene spiked in the river water at 15 parts per million, briefly exceeding the human health limit of 5 parts per million. But Livers said the limit is more of a concern if it's long term.

"Evaporation happens in the summer but that isn't happening. Our hope is that some of that has dissolved and dissipated through the river. But nobody has experience with cold-weather spills," Livers said.

Using underwater cameras, Bridger Pipeline found as much as 120 feet of exposed pipe at the bottom of the river, which could increase the risk of another spill, Livers said.

One problem is that no one yet knows when the last pipeline inspection was.

Livers said he believes it was in 2011 or 2012, but he has to get that information from the Pipeline Hazardous Materials Safety Administration, which is part of the U.S. Department of Transportation.

In 2011, about 8 feet of earth covered the pipe, Livers said.

"In that short amount of time, the river scoured and exposed that much pipe. That's not a lot of time for that amount of change to have happened. That is a concern that we're going to be wrestling with. It shows how dynamic these rivers are," Livers said.

That becomes a bigger concern, considering the thousands of pipeline crossings that run beneath Montana's perennial streams.

Livers said the focus near Glendive so far has been containment and human safety. But soon DEQ and the Environmental Protection Agency will look into causes.

"I think it's a regulatory system that is really strained to the limits of its ability," Livers said. "I think the federal government does what they can. If more resources are made available, I think Montana needs a piece of those."

The Schweitzer administration held an investigation after the 50,000-gallon Silvertip spill near Billings in 2011 and recommended a better inspection program. Livers was part of that and admitted that maybe some recommendations weren't followed.

"Some of us were probably guilty of saying the Silvertip (spill) was an anomaly, it was an extreme weather situation. I said on more than one occasion that it was the only pipeline spill of that magnitude that I'd see in my career. I won't say that again," Livers said. "I think there are some things we need to dust off because we've got another incident here and that's telling us something."

Livers said oil companies are taking incidents seriously and have more resources to do inspections. So maybe put requirements on the companies and make sure the companies have the resources to oversee inspections, Livers said.


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