Oil Spill Hits the Yellowstone River

A rupture in an Exxon Mobil oil pipeline Friday night has spilled at least 42,000 gallons of crude oil into Montana’s Yellowstone River, contaminating drinking and irrigation water while damaging riparian ecosystems in one of the most pristine wild rivers left in the United States.  Around 140 people were evacuated from their homes over the weekend, to escape toxic fumes from the oil spill and because of the possibility that the damaged pipeline could explode. 

By Sunday a plume of oil from the spill site had extended twenty-five miles down the river, coating riverfront properties and farmland in a slick, toxic goo.  Smaller amounts of oil have been found nearly 250 miles downstream.  Though Exxon is attempting to deal with the spill, cleanup efforts have been hampered by surging floodwaters fed by melting mountain glaciers.  The strong river current makes getting into the water to remove the oil difficult, and also threatens to push the oil even further downstream.

The timing of the spill is also particularly bad for nearby farmers, who are finding it difficult to irrigate their fields during the summer growing season due to contamination of the river.  It could take weeks or months before water from the Yellowstone is safe to use for irrigation and drinking again.

The Yellowstone River, which flows through Yellowstone National Park, across a large stretch of Montana, and into North Dakota where it feeds the Missouri River, is the longest undammed river in the contiguous forty-eight United States.  Renowned for it scenic beauty, it passes through canyons, wilderness areas, and farmland.  In addition to serving as a source of water for drinking and irrigation, the Yellowstone is also much-loved by anglers and river rafters.

The scenic and economic importance of the Yellowstone makes the oil spill from Exxon Mobil’s pipeline particularly worrying.  The twelve-inch diameter pipeline, which crosses beneath the river on its way to an oil refinery in Billings, Montana, ruptured for a reason that has yet to be determined.  However raging floodwaters may have scraped away the mud at the bottom of the river and uncovered the pipeline, which is normally buried beneath the river bed.  A floating log or other piece of debris swept up in the floodwaters could have hit and punctured the pipeline, causing the leak.

The spill is the latest in a string of oil-related environmental disasters occurring in the last year and a half, and a reminder that accidents are an inevitable part of life in the oil industry.  Almost one year ago, on July 25th, 2010, a ruptured pipeline owned by Enbridge Energy spilled close to 20,000 barrels of oil into Michigan’s Kalamazoo River, causing die-offs of fish and birds in what has been called one of the worst environmental disasters in the state.  Slightly over one month earlier, a Chevron-owned oil pipeline in Salt Lake City spilled 20,000 gallons into the area’s Red Butte Creek. 

Most famous of all, of course, is the BP spill in the Gulf of Mexico that occurred in spring of last year.  Today marine wildlife and fishing-dependent Gulf economies are still suffering the from the impacts of that spill, which has been recognized as the largest oil spill and one of the worst environmental accidents in US history. 

Pipelines that pass beneath rivers and creeks are particularly prone to serious spills, both because debris in the moving water can puncture them, and because once a spill occurs oil is swept downstream and quickly spread over a wide area. 

The leak in the pipeline beneath the Yellowstone River now appears to be sealed, though it took Exxon twice as long to stop the flow of oil as it had originally disclosed to the public.  According to documents released by the Department of Transportation it took almost an hour to seal the link, whereas Exxon had said it had the problem under control after half an hour.  How long it will take to clean up the oil remains to be seen.  

Photo credit: flickr.com/photos/rebcal/4150884009/

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