(Billings, MT - Yellowstone Public Radio) --An oil pipeline break earlier this month that sent 1,000 barrels of oil into the Yellowstone River has soiled river banks and vegetation, and may have impacted the areas fisheries and wildlife. Continued high, fast-flowing water is hampering assessment efforts -- but a Congressional committee wants answers.
The director of the Montana Department of Environmental Quality sent a letter this week to ExxonMobil's CEO demanding an explanation from the Houston-based company about how much oil spilled into the river. Some estimates put the amount of oil at 42,000 gallons.
At the time of the break water in the Yellowstone River near Billings was running high and fast at or near flood stage. As of yesterday, U-S Environmental Protection Agency officials overseeing the cleanup said between 1-5% of the spilled oil has been recovered.
The Silvertip Pipeliine is a 12-inch diameter pipeline that transports crude from Elk Basin, Wyoming to the ExxonMobile refinery in Billings, Montana. The pipe broke late Friday night near Laurel, Montana, a community about 15 miles west of Billings in south-central Montana.
At this time the cause of the spill has not been determined.
The U-S Transportation Department's Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA) is the primary federal agency that oversees the safety of energy pipelines.
On Thursday, the House Subcommittee on Railroads, Pipelines and Hazardous Materials is scheduled to hold a hearing on Silvertip Pipeline break. Witnesses called: PHMSA Administrator Cynthia Quarterman, ExxonMobil President Gary Pruessing, and National Wildlife scientist Douglas Inkley.
In the meantime, cleanup continues. Falling river levels finally allowed cleanup teams on Monday to launch boats in flooded areas where the river has jumped its banks. Oil has been sighted as far downstream as 90 miles downstream, although the fast moving river and the vast distances is making it difficult for officials to verify landowner sightings.
The response time lag and ExxonMobil's response to landowner concerns prompted the State of Montana to pull staff out of the unified command team directing the cleanup. (http://www.epa.gov/yellowstoneriverspill/) Instead, Governor Brian Schweitzer opened the state's own office. (http://yellowstoneriveroilspill.mt.gov/).
A public meeting is scheduled at 6:30 pm in Laurel, Montana to give area residents an update on the cleanup. Claims officials are also expected to be on site.