By Samantha St. Marie
On Saturday, Jan. 17, nearly 50,000 gallons of oil spilled along the banks of the Yellowstone River in Glendive, Mont. According to the Bridger Pipeline Company, a 12-inch break in a pipeline about five miles from Glendive, near the North Dakota border, was the cause of the spill. To make matters worse, cleanup crews are struggling to find the oil in the river due to thick ice.
On-site coordinator for the Environmental Protection Agency Paul Peronard acknowledged that, “these are horrible working conditions to try to recover oil. Normally you at least see it, but you can’t see it, you can’t smell it. We’re going to have to hunt and peck through ice to get it out.”
Despite the difficult conditions, Montana Governor Steve Bullock expects Bridger to clean up the area and provide the resources necessary to accommodate the 6,000 residents of Glendive.
The biggest concern for residents has been the safety of their drinking water. While nothing was detected in Glendive’s water supply initially following the spill, residents, by Sunday night, noticed that their water smelled like gasoline. As a precaution, residents were warned to avoid drinking from the city water supply. Furthermore, as a result, shipments of drinking water were brought into Glendive.
After further tests, officials discovered elevated levels of benzene, a cancer-causing chemical, in the city’s water supply. The level of benzene found in Glendive’s water supply reached between 10 and 15 parts per billion. At this level, a person with short-term exposure would likely experience several symptoms, including vomiting, dizziness, sleepiness, convulsions and rapid and irregular heartbeat.
According to the EPA, any level over 5 parts per billion poses long-term health risks. The effects of long-term exposure to benzene are much worse. Contact with benzene, either through ingestion or respiration, for periods greater than one year causes a person’s supply of red blood cells to fall sharply, which in turn harmfully affects a person’s bone marrow and immune system. Breathing large amounts of benzene is also, according to the Department of Health and Human Services, a cause of leukemia.
The spill not only poses a risk for humans but also the surrounding wildlife. The EPA recognizes that benzene has also been found to cause low birth weights, damage to bone marrow and delayed bone formation in offspring when pregnant animals breathed high levels of benzene.
Swift cleanup efforts will be necessary to ensure the safety of residents, Bridger employees and contaminated ecosystems. As long as Glendive residents continue to avoid using the contaminated water for any activities, they should be safe, but the trouble of cleaning up the spill has many residents and cleanup crews frustrated.
Until the ice covering the river is reduced and the banks along the river begin to thaw, the cleanup process will be difficult, slow going and pricy. In July 2011, flooding caused an ExxonMobil pipeline near Laurel, Mont., to break, spilling over 63,000 gallons of oil along the shore of the Yellowstone River. The oil spread 85 miles downstream and covered roughly 11,000 acres.
Despite a cleanup crew of 1,000, Montana officials claim that only a fraction of the oil that leaked into the river and shoreline was actually removed. By September the EPA left the scene, but the region still remains under long-term monitoring due to the harmful effects the spill had on fish and other aquatic wildlife, birds, trees and wooded habitats. ExxonMobil is currently facing federal and state government fines of $3.4 million, but cleaning up the spill has cost the company upwards of $135 million.
Considering the poor weather conditions, Bridger Pipeline will likely face similar expenses and fines, and could remain on the scene to clean up the oil well into the spring months, as the ice thaws.
Vice President of Bridger Pipeline Tad True commented, “Our primary concern is to minimize the environmental impact of the release and keep our responders safe as we clean up from this unfortunate incident.” Until the company receives approval for the cleanup operations from the U.S. Department of Transportation’s Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration, pipeline operations will be closed.