It will likely be months before investigators know what caused an ExxonMobil oil pipeline to rupture near Billings, Mont., spilling about 1,000 barrels of crude oil into the Yellowstone River. The spill fouled shoreline and contaminated backwaters along dozens of miles of the scenic river. The flow of oil through the company’s Silvertip pipeline has been shut off since the July 1st accident. ExxonMobil hasn’t yet submitted its plan for the replacement pipe to the safety administration, which must approve the project before it can go forward. The agency hasn’t yet determined how deep the replacement pipe will have to be buried, except that it will be deeper than the pipe that ruptured. The depth will depend on the plan ExxonMobil submits, but horizontal drilling will be required. Federal regulations require that pipelines that cross underneath riverbeds be buried at least four feet. The result of tests conducted by ExxonMobil prior to the accident indicated the pipeline beneath the river bottom was buried about five feet.
At the time of the accident, unusually high amounts of mountain snowmelt had increased water level and velocity in the river to historic levels. That, in turn, increased the possibility for erosion of the riverbed covering the oil pipeline. Safety officials were concerned enough about that section – as well as other pipelines in parts of the country that suffered flooding – that they were checking daily with ExxonMobil.
It will likely be August or September before water levels in the river are low enough to exhume the section of damaged pipe responsible for the spill. It will be about two months after that before investigators identify a cause for the spill. The pipe replacement will also require moving two shutoff valves. The agency won’t know for certain how large the leak was until it examines records at the ExxonMobil’s control room in Houston.
A barrel of oil equals 42 gallons. A Pacific Gas & Electric natural gas pipeline explosion last year in San Bruno, Calif., killed eight people and injured dozens of others. An Enbridge Inc. pipeline ruptured last July in southwest Michigan, spilling more than 800,000 gallons of oil into the Kalamazoo River. Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont., told the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee’s pipeline subcommittee, he’s frustrated because ExxonMobil officials have changed their initial statements on several key elements of the accident, including how long it took to shut the pipeline down, how far downstream the oil has traveled and how deep the pipeline was buried. Sen. Tester had this to say in his testimony: “And in this situation, Exxon was tasked with regulating itself. Regulators were not on the job. And now we’re paying a price for it.”
Relations between ExxonMobil officials and Montana Gov. Brian Schweitzer, a Democrat, became openly hostile. Last month, Gov. Schweitzer pulled out of the incident command group, responding to the leak. His office said ExxonMobil was barring reporters from meetings held at a local hotel in violation of the state’s open meetings law. As a result, they were preventing public access to information about the pipeline and the leak.
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