BILLINGS — As the oil cleanup along the Yellowstone River entered its third day Monday, ExxonMobil officials and investigators from state and federal agencies still are trying to determine what caused the rupture of a sub-river oil pipeline.
In fact, officials have yet to reach the pipeline to see what the leak looks like, or where in the river it is.
“They’re really trying to figure out how to do it,” said Alan Jeffers, a spokesman for ExxonMobil.
With the Yellowstone running as high and as fast as it is, officials aren’t sure when they’ll be able to get to it.
“It’s not a safe place to be right now,” Jeffers said.
Jeffers confirmed that the rupture was to the Silvertip pipeline, the main line from northern Wyoming to the Billings refinery. Pipeline and refinery officials are now “making arrangements” to ship the crude to Billings either by truck or by rail.
The U.S. Department of Transportation, which oversees pipelines, last year issued a warning letter to ExxonMobil that cited seven safety violations along the Silvertip pipeline. Two of the warnings faulted the company for its emergency response and pipeline corrosion training.
Transportation department spokeswoman Patricia Klinger told the Associated Press that the company has since responded to the warnings and the case was closed.
An estimated 1,000 barrels of oil — roughly 42,000 gallons — spilled late Friday before the flow of oil from the damaged, 12-inch pipeline could be stopped.
Still, with the line shut down, residual oil in the pipe likely continued to seep out until that section of pipe was completely emptied.
However, at this point, Jeffers said it’s unlikely oil is still leaking out.
“We haven’t seen any for awhile,” he said.
Monday afternoon, much of the cleanup efforts were concentrated on the Thiel Road area east of Laurel, where gobs of black crude cover much of the riverbank, sticking to the tall grass and low-hanging tree limbs. Swirls of red-brown oil sit in pools of standing river water next to the road.
Dozens of white-clad cleanup crews were there, scooping up sticky oil-covered river debris and placing it in black trash bags. Booms and pads were sitting in the water catching oil as it floated in the current.
A small crew at Mystic Park was on hands and knees wiping oil from clumps of grass where the river had receded.
The cleanup area has been organized into four zones, Jeffers said.
Cleanup activities are focused in the first two zones, Laurel to Duck Creek Bridge, a distance of 7 miles from the spill location, and the 12 miles from Duck Creek Bridge to Johnson Lane. The second two zones go from Johnson Lane to Miles City, 144 miles, and Miles City to Glendive, 78 miles.
More than 280 people now are involved in the effort, including ExxonMobil’s North America Regional Response Team, the Clean Harbors and ER oil spill response organizations and additional contractors, the company announced Monday evening.
More than 150 people worked on the oil clean-up along the river banks Monday.
On Sunday, the Environmental Protection Agency and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service officials conducted an aerial assessment of the area beginning where the pipeline apparently broke, near Laurel, to a point 30 miles downstream of Billings.
They reported seeing bank deposits and small pooling of oil in backwaters and slow water at intermittent points along both the north and south banks of the river.
Sitting at the Audubon Conservation Education Center in south Billings on Monday, Norm Schoenthal said none of the oil had reached Norm Schoenthal Island or the conservation center.
But he’d seen it down along the river.
“I don’t know how you’re ever going to clean the area,” he said.