Exxon oil spill in Montana’s Yellowstone River puts spotlight back on pipeline safety

ExxonMobil workers on Tuesday were scrambling to add staff and find ways to work in swift-moving flood waters to soak up more than 40,000 gallons of oil the company spilled into Montana’s pristine Yellowstone River Friday night.

Montana Gov. Brian Schweitzer toured the area southwest of Billings Tuesday morning and told CNN he was very worried about long term impacts to fish habitat.

“My biggest concern is those 1,000 barrels,” Schweitzer said. “You cannot dump (that much oil) into a pristine trout stream without causing damage to the fisheries.”

Exxon officials Tuesday still weren’t sure exactly why a pipeline in the river cracked. But property owners downstream were reporting oil washing up on their land and the strong smell of oil in the air.

Canadian media reports speculated the spill could dampen the enthusiasm of Montana residents for a major oil and gas pipeline project slated to connect the oil fields of Alberta to refineries on the Gulf Coast of Texas.

The proposed Keystone XL pipeline would pass deep under the Yellowstone River in Montana and then travel through South Dakota, Nebraska, Kansas and Oklahoma. It needs U.S. State Department approval because it would cross the border with Canada.

“I think that Montana had in the past not really been too concerned about the Keystone XL pipeline, and I think [the Exxon spill] is really going to change that,” Susan Casey-Lefkowitz of the Natural Resources Defense Council told CanadaBusiness.com.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has told the U.S. State Department that environmental review of the Keystone XL project has so far been inadequate to approve the project.

“Pipeline oil spills are a very real concern,” wrote Cynthia Giles, EPA’s assistant administrator for enforcement and compliance assurance, according to the Huffington Post. Giles pointed to recent spills in Michigan and Illinois, and the first phase of the Keystone pipeline has seen 12 spills already in its first year.

And while Keystone XL would travel to the east of Colorado, regulatory officials in this state say pipeline leaks, waste pit spills and bad cement casing of well bores are all greater concerns than groundwater contamination from hydraulic fracturing, a drilling process that has drawn much more media attention lately.

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