Regulators expand number of Exxon Montana cleanup sites

By Bradley Olson

(Bloomberg) — Exxon Mobil Corp.’s crude oil pipeline spill into the Yellowstone River in Montana is being cleaned at 38 sites after the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency expanded the recovery effort.

Exxon has captured about 910 barrels of oily water from the river, the EPA said. About 1 percent of that volume is crude, indicating an estimated 9 barrels of oil out of as many as 1,000 that spilled from a July 1 pipeline rupture have been cleaned, according to the EPA.

The cleanup will take “weeks to months,” and the effort will soon shift toward cleaning vegetation, said Steve Merritt, the EPA’s on-site coordinator.

Exxon’s 69-mile Silvertip line was transporting about 40,000 barrels a day prior to the leak and runs from Elk Basin, Wyoming, to Exxon’s 60,000-barrel-a-day refinery in Billings, Montana.

The flow of the flood-swollen Yellowstone has receded, improving conditions for the 600 workers recovering the oil, Merritt said. The high flood level of the Yellowstone has reduced the visibility of oil on the river’s main course, although inland areas and islands remain soaked.

Preliminary tests by regulators show the oil is posing no threat to drinking water, air, agricultural irrigation or public health, the agency said.

The U.S. Pipeline and Hazardous Safety Materials Administration issued a corrective action order to Exxon on July 5 requiring the company to rebury the Silvertip pipeline below the river to avoid future damage. The company agreed to do so.

“Any repair of the pipeline will be conducted in consultation and with the approval of all relevant authorities,” David Eglinton, a spokesman for Exxon’s pipeline company, said in an e-mail today. “Right now our focus is on cleaning up the spill.”

Most of the leaked oil is concentrated within 30 miles of the spill site near Laurel, about 15 miles southwest of Billings, Merritt said yesterday.

Workers have placed almost 33,000 feet of boom and about 160,000 absorbent pads on the river, Exxon said in a statement. The company has begun to deploy boats to clean up inland creeks as floodwaters from the river have begun to recede in recent days.

Exxon has received 285 calls from the community and has responded to about 100 claims related to property, agriculture or health, the company said.

Montana is weighing what legal options the state has against Exxon, including litigation and a daily fine of as much as $1,000, said Richard Opper, director of the Montana Department of Environmental Quality.

The company, the world’s largest by market value, declined on July 9 to release the cost of its spill response. The Irving, Texas-based company may be spending about $750,000 a day, said Richard Boes, a case management specialist with the U.S. Coast Guard’s National Pollution Funds Center. It was set up to manage the government’s costs, which Exxon will reimburse.

Exxon’s refinery in Billings has been operating at about 50 percent capacity and receiving crude by truck, a person with knowledge of the situation said July 8.

“Although some refinery units are impacted, we expect to be able to meet our motor fuels contractual commitments for the foreseeable future,” Kevin Allexon, an Exxon spokesman, said in an e-mail. He declined further comment on operations.