Early in the morning on July 2, 2011, I walked down the gravel road on our farm to let the goats out to graze for the day. I found the Yellowstone River flowing through our hay fields and summer pasture and, along with the water, an oily rainbow sheen and large clumps of crude oil sticking to trees, cattails and brush. It was in our sloughs, our pond and Blue Creek.
The smell was overwhelming. I checked the news on my phone and found out that an Exxon oil pipeline had ruptured underneath the Yellowstone River upstream from my family’s farm. The article instructed anyone impacted to call a 1-800 number.
I called the number as I was standing thigh deep in oily water and listened to a woman ask me if we had property damage.
“Yes.” I said, “Yes, there are damages.”
In the end, over 63,000 gallons of crude oil spilled into the Yellowstone River from what I learned later was a “guillotine cut” in the Exxon Silvertip pipeline that lay in a trench around five feet beneath the Yellowstone River. During heavy flooding, the river bottom was scoured away and the pipe became exposed. All it took was a heavy object being tossed down the river to break the pipe in half. After spending $135 million dollars on the cleanup, Exxon recovered less than 1 percent of the oil spilled.
It took Exxon an hour to completely shut down the pipeline and almost three days to bring in a cleanup crew. Federal investigators found that damage would have been reduced by about two-thirds if the pipeline controllers in Houston had closed the appropriate valve as soon as a problem was detected.
I made one trip to the hospital with acute hydrocarbon exposure, along with many other people who live along the river and, for one year after the spill, it hurt my lungs to take a deep breath. We are on year five and countless hours of trying to rebuild our soil and restore our pastures back to their original condition.
After the spill, the state of Montana leaned on the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA) to inspect 90 pipeline river crossings in Montana. Twenty of those crossings were deemed a high risk for failure and were either reburied with directional drilling or strengthened.
And yet, four years later, in January 2015, another oil pipeline burst underneath the Yellowstone near Glendive. Sonar testing showed about 110 feet of pipeline was exposed along the bottom of the river. In one area, river scour had removed almost an entire foot of dirt and rocks underneath the pipe, leaving it completely exposed for 22 feet. During this “release”—which is the term that industry and government use to refer to oil spills—over 42,000 gallons of oil spilled into the Yellowstone River. People in Glendive began smelling oil in their tap water. No one in town was told until more than 24 hours after the spill.
This pipeline, according to the inspections undertaken by PHMSA after the 2011 spill, was deemed a low-risk pipeline.
When oil spills happen, not just those on the Yellowstone, I feel like I’m living in the movie “Groundhog Day,” except I get to relive oil company executives and government officials saying the same things about pipeline safety. “We need to learn from this,” “We need to reexamine the federal rules regarding depth of cover,” “This is serious.”
After the media attention dissipates so does the political will to do anything substantive about pipeline safety. Then another oil spill happens and we throw up our hands.
Here is what I know. In the past five years, two oil pipelines have spilled over 100,000 gallons of crude oil into the longest free-flowing river in the lower 48 states. We know why the pipelines broke and we know how to stop them from breaking in the future.
The federal government requires a minimum of only four feet of cover over pipelines in rivers 100 feet or wider and only at the time of installation. Crossing inspections are left up to pipeline owners and required only once every five years.
Anyone who knows the Yellowstone River knows that it is constantly changing and re-channeling. It moves outward where it is able and always downward, carving deep trenches in the river in many places, especially during spring run-off and ice jams. Scour can push yards of river bed around in a single year, easily exposing pipelines.
Federal regulations do not take into consideration the very significant and unique challenges of pipeline crossings in the Yellowstone River. And, the recently passed PIPES Act, sponsored by U.S. Sen. Steve Daines, R-Mont., and signed by President Obama, does some good things to move the ball forward on pipeline safety and gives PHMSA some additional authority.
But it does not address the one thing that the Yellowstone River needs: all pipelines that run underneath the river need to be directionally drilled deep under the river bottom so they aren’t vulnerable to river scour.
Until this happens Montanans can expect that the two recent oil spills in the Yellowstone River won’t be the last.
Alexis Bonogofsky is a fourth-generation Montanan, goat rancher and hunter who lives and works along the Yellowstone River near Billings. She was awarded a Cultural Freedom Fellowship from the Lannan Foundation in 2014 and is a board member of the Pipeline Safety Trust. She also managed the Tribal Lands Partnerships Program for the National Wildlife Federation for 10 years.