Federal, local teams survey oil's damage along Montana river

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LAUREL, Mont. — Teams of federal and state workers fanned out Sunday along Montana’s famed Yellowstone River to gauge the environmental damage from a ruptured Exxon Mobil pipeline that spewed tens of thousands of gallons of crude oil into the waterway.

The break near Billings, in south-central Montana, fouled the riverbank and forced municipalities and irrigation districts to close intakes.

An Environmental Protection Agency spokeswoman Sonya Pennock said an unspecified amount of oil could be seen 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.

Exxon Mobil Pipeline Co. President Gary Pruessing said company observers flying over the river had seen “very little soiling” beyond Billings, and that the oil appeared to be evaporating and dissipating into the river as the flooded Yellowstone carries it downstream.

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

State officials on Saturday had reported a 25-mile-long slick headed downstream toward the Yellowstone’s confluence with the Missouri River, just across the Montana border in North Dakota. An estimated 1,000 barrels spilled Saturday before the flow was stopped.

“My guess is that as fast as that water is moving, it’s probably dissipating pretty quick,” said DES public assistance officer Tim Thennis.

Exxon Mobil also revealed Sunday that the 12-inch pipeline had been temporarily shut down in May because of concerns over the rising waters on the Yellowstone. Pruessing said the company decided to restart the line a day later after examining its safety record and deciding the risk of failure was low.

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. 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.

Agency on-scene coordinator Steve Way said fast flows along the flooding river were spreading the oil over a large area, making it harder to capture. But Way said that also could reduce damage to wildlife and cropland along the river.

Crews were putting absorbent material along short stretches of the river in Billings and near Laurel, but there were no attempts at capturing oil farther out in the river. In some areas, oil flowed underneath booms and continued downstream.

But property owners along the river were growing frustrated with the response, particularly in agricultural areas where crops and pastures for grazing were at risk.

Billings-area goat rancher Alexis Bonogofsky said the flooding Yellowstone brought the oil into her summer pastures — pollution she’s not sure what to do with. Bonogofsky said she had been unable to get answers through either government authorities or Exxon Mobil.

“My place is covered with oil,” she said. “I would like a list that says ‘This is what’s in crude oil.’ ... I called a million times yesterday and got no response.”