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Yellowstone Oil Spill Highlights Need for Better Safety Rules

Accident Another Blow to Exxon's Reputation in Montana

When an Exxon Mobil pipeline broke in Montana last week, 1,000 barrels of crude oil spewed into the Yellowstone River, seemingly a mere leakage compared to the 4.9 million barrels of oil that flowed into the Gulf of Mexico from BP’s ruptured pipeline last year. But the Yellowstone River, considered one of the best trout streams in the world, is one of the most ecologically pristine rivers in the US. And because the Yellowstone River does not have a single dam — it is the longest undammed river in the U.S. — the oil is free to travel unchecked.

Photo by Richard TaylorYellowstone River has no dams and is one of the most ecologically pristine rivers in the US.

The accident is a further blow to Exxon’s reputation. The company is already facing flak from Montana natives for its plans to transport massive loads of South Korean-made mining equipment to the tar sands mines of Canada via Montana’s scenic highways.

The spill occurred on July 1, when the river’s flooding was reaching its peak, providing a mixed blessing for clean-up crews. According to experts, the force of the water could break up the toxins, which would help minimize the damage. But the swollen, fast-moving water makes it impossible for anybody to get on the river to survey the damage, and the high water levels have brought the danger of oil to land and smaller animal-filled tributaries that the water would not usually reach.

Exxon initially claimed the oil would not spread farther than 10 miles downstream, but Montana Gov. Brian Schweitzer said that it is likely oil has already arrived in North Dakota, more than 100 miles away. There is also concern that the oil will flow into one of the Yellowstone River’s largest tributaries, the Missouri River.

Though water levels are receding since the 13.95 ft. peak on July 2, it has still been difficult to fully ascertain the impact this oil spill will have on surrounding wildlife. One duck has been reported dead, and ecologists say it is likely that more will follow.

In addition to the rich fisheries, the area is home to Canadian geese, ducks, ospreys, otters and bald eagles, according to Charles Preston, an ecologist and conservation biologist. The birds, in particular, might die directly or indirectly as they go after fish. Depending on the nature of the oil spill, toxins from the crude oil may kill critical insects, which would have a trickle-down effect on the fishing industry.

But little definite is known yet because of the difficulty in getting near or on the flooded river. Scientists from Montana State University are working to document any changes in wildlife abundance as a result of the oil spill from the beginning of the summer and from past years. The biologists will provide the GPS locations of sick turtles and fish and record any obvious fish kills.

“In the weeks and months ahead, we will be looking for any unusual changes in the river's natural environment and any impacts on the species of fish we would expect to find at this time of year,” said Al Zale, an ecology professor at MSU. “Some species or ages of fish may be more susceptible to this type of pollution than others.”

It might be a while before we find out whether the impact of the spill is minor or serious, what the accident proves right now is that we need better regulation and monitoring of oil pipelines. Perhaps that’s something the Obama administration should keep in mind as it reviews TransCanada’s $7 billion Keystone XL pipeline project , part of which, incidentally, will also run through Montana.

Claire Perlman
Claire Perlman is Earth Island Journal's summer intern. She is an English major at the University of California, Berkeley and is the lead Research and Ideas reporter and a senior staff writer at the student newspaper, The Daily Californian.

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