Another Yellowstone River oil spill

Pipeline safety regulation hasn't changed much since the last spill.


This weekend, a pipeline leaked up to 40,000 gallons of crude oil into the Yellowstone River upstream of Glendive, Montana, which draws its drinking water from the river. Residents reported foul smells wafting from their taps, and testing revealed elevated benzene levels in the municipal treatment plant's water. The county told residents not to drink tap water, and the company that owns the pipeline, Bridger Pipeline, began trucking water to the town. 

Yellowstone oil 2011
Canada geese on a stretch of the Yellowstone impacted by the 2011 oil spill. Courtesy U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Unfortunately, the whole mess conjures a sense of deja vu. On July 1, 2011, an ExxonMobil pipeline also running beneath the Yellowstone ruptured near Laurel, Montana, vomiting 63,000 gallons of crude oil into the river. Already at flood stage, it flushed hydrocarbon slicks into riparian habitat and across nearby agricultural fields. The accident came just a year after a much more devastating spill flooded Michigan's Kalamazoo River with some 800,000 gallons of crude from the Canadian tar sands.

The mishaps helped draw attention to the vulnerabilities of the country's pipelines, especially where they cross rivers, and to the weaknesses of regulations dictating precautions companies must take to avoid breaches and to respond to them when they do occur. Congress convened hearings on pipeline safety within weeks of the Yellowstone spill, and at the end of the year, passed the The Pipeline Safety, Regulatory Certainty, and Job Creation Act of 2011.

So when the Yellowstone became laced with oil again, it raised a larger question: Are rivers underlaid with pipelines any better buffered against significant spills than they were in 2011? 

I called Rebecca Craven, program director at the Pipeline Safety Trust, a watchdog group formed by families whose children were killed when a gas pipeline exploded in Bellingham, Washington in 1999. When I told Craven I wanted to know more about what reforms had resulted from the 2011 pipeline safety act, she responded that it would be a very short conversation. Not much at all had changed, she said.  

The 2011 act called for studies into various issues, like whether existing regulations were adequate for pipelines carrying diluted bitumen, the heavier, more corrosive crude produced in the tar sands, and a review of incidents involving hazardous liquid pipelines that cross inland waters. It also allowed the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration to levy higher fines against companies for safety violations. 

But so far, the studies have not led to new rules to address some of the major areas of regulatory weakness that pipeline safety advocates have identified. Those include requiring the use of remote-controlled shut-off valves, or more protective automatic shut-off valves. The latter close automatically in response to drops in pressure, providing the quickest response to a breach and protection against serious spills. With respect to rivers, safety advocates would like to see the depth at which pipelines must be buried increase in order to decrease the likelihood that scouring of the riverbed during high water would expose a pipeline, leaving it vulnerable to rushing rocks and debris. 

"The 2011 bill really didn’t enact any new regulatory requirements," Craven said. "Things are where they were in 2011."

The head of pipeline safety at the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA), Jeffrey Wiese, acknowledged as much in 2013. InsideClimate News published remarks made that year by Wiese to an audience in New Orleans:

Wiese told several hundred oil and gas pipeline compliance officers that his agency ... has "very few tools to work with" in enforcing safety rules even after Congress in 2011 allowed it to impose higher fines on companies that cause major accidents.

"Do I think I can hurt a major international corporation with a $2 million civil penalty? No."

A team which includes the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the Montana Department of Environmental Quality, PHMSA, the company and spill response contractors they've hired, has deployed to the scene. However, the EPA reports that ice flows in the river are complicating cleanup efforts. 

At this point, it's hard to say whether stronger regulations could have helped prevent the newest Yellowstone River spill. Details about the incident are still emerging, and the cause is not yet known. (PHMSA will investigate the cause and response.) Bill Salvin, a spokesman for Bridger Pipeline, said the pipeline was buried at variable depths below the riverbed, and 8 feet at the shallowest. (Salvin did not immediately return an inquiry to clarify whether the 8-foot measurement was taken recently, or represents the depth the pipeline was initially buried at.) Pipelines are required to be buried a minimum of 4 feet under waterways, but safety advocates argue the standard is wholly inadequate in many dynamic rivers. Salvin also said the pipeline was inspected in 2012 with a "smart pig," a device inserted inside pipelines to assess their integrity, which Craven said should be in compliance with inspection rules, which vary depending on a pipeline's location, but at their strictest require inspections every 5 years. 

Whatever the outcome of the investigation, however, the incident provides occasion to ask, again, whether we should be doing more to protect our communities and our environment from the hazards beneath our feet. 

Cally Carswell is a High Country News contributing editor and freelance science and environmental journalist based in Santa Fe, New Mexico.   

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