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Yellowstone River Oil Spill Prompts State of Emergency

Jan Lee headshotWords by Jan Lee
Energy & Environment
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Residents in the town of Glendive, Montana, have been told not to drink their water after an oil pipeline broke on Saturday, dumping an estimated 50,000 gallons of Bakken light crude into the Yellowstone River.

The breach was discovered approximately 10 miles upstream from the town of 6,000, which serves as the agricultural hub for eastern Montana.

A spokesperson for Montana Gov. Steve Bullock said the pipeline was shut down quickly.

"We think it was caught pretty quick," said Dave Parker. "The governor is committed to making sure the river is cleaned up."

By Sunday, however, residents in town were reporting an odd odor. Initial tests conducted on the town's water supply indicated elevated levels of hydrocarbons, prompting officials to order a warning against drinking the water. The governor has since declared a state of emergency, but he assured residents that the spill would be cleaned up by Bridger Pipeline, LLC, the Casper, Wyoming-based company that owns the pipeline. Bridger Pipeline is owned by True Companies, which owns a variety of companies, including True Ranches, Butte Pipeline Co., Belle Fourche Pipeline Co. and Black Hills Trucking.

The line, referred to as the Poplar pipeline, runs from the Canada-U.S. border to Baker, Montana, about 72 miles southeast of Glendive. There it hooks up with the Butte pipeline, which heads toward Wyoming. According to Bridger spokesperson Bill Salvin, the line was last inspected in 2012; it lies at least 8 feet below the Yellowstone River, which it crosses near Glendive.

Cleanup is being hampered by ice, which formed over the river and has made it difficult for crews to spot the oil. It has also made it difficult to retrieve the crude, which is normally contained using a boom when it has entered fresh water. Crews are looking to crack the ice and hopefully vacuum out some of the oil -- a difficult job in freezing winter weather.

An oil sheen was spotted about 60 miles downriver, causing officials to raise concerns about the distance that the oil spill may have already traveled. The towns of Sydney, Montana, and Williston, North Dakota, are believed to be in its path, and they have been notified by officials as a precaution. U.S. Fish and Wildlife and the U.S. Coast Guard are also responding.

This isn't the first time that an oil spill has contaminated the Yellowstone River in eastern Montana. In 2011, a pipeline managed by ExxonMobil broke underneath the Yellowstone outside of Laurel, Montana, about 240 miles southwest of Glendive. Two years later, the federal and state governments were still attempting to recover damages from the spill.

More tests will be conducted in coming days to determine the extent of the pollution from the Poplar line break. Meanwhile, the pipeline remains closed indefinitely until assessments and cleanup are complete.

Image of the Yellowstone River near Glendive: Tim Evanson

Image of hawk being cleaned following ExxonMobil 2011 oil spill into the Yellowstone River: USFWS Mountain-Prairie

Jan Lee headshotJan Lee

Jan Lee is a former news editor and award-winning editorial writer whose non-fiction and fiction have been published in the U.S., Canada, Mexico, the U.K. and Australia. Her articles and posts can be found on TriplePundit, JustMeans, and her blog, The Multicultural Jew, as well as other publications. She currently splits her residence between the city of Vancouver, British Columbia and the rural farmlands of Idaho.

Read more stories by Jan Lee