It’s been nearly two weeks since an Exxon pipeline cracked sending tens of thousands of gallons of crude oil into the Yellowstone River, and the recovery efforts have raised many red flags. Montana Governor Brian Schweitzer has repeatedly asked ExxonMobil to clarify the extent of the damage and how much oil actually spilled into the river. Exxon’s president originally said that it took only six minutes to shut down the pumps and control the leak, but reports submitted to the federal authorities show that it took nearly an hour to stop the flow of oil. So what’s the real story?
In an interview with NPR, Gov. Schweitzer said that initially Exxon told them that it took six minutes to stop the leak and, in that time, 750 to 1,000 barrels of oil flowed into the river. But then when Exxon finally admitted that it took almost ten times longer than that, the company still maintained that only 750 to 1,000 barrels spilled. Schweitzer and Montana’s Department of of Environmental Quality Director have asked Exxon why they have not revised their estimate of the spill, and they have received no response.
Exxon maintains that it is hard to figure out the exact volume of the spill because it’s difficult to determine the rate of flow in the pipeline. But this is not an explanation that Schweitzer is willing to accept. “If they don’t know how much oil fits in their pipeline or how much comes out the other side, maybe they’re not looking that hard to get the answer,” he told NPR. “Of course this is complicated, but when you’re paying $90 a barrel for oil, I think that you pretty much know how much oil you’ve got in that pipeline and how much has been delivered and how much is missing.”
More than 80 miles of shoreline have been affected by the spill, and only 1 to 5 percent of the oil is expected to be recovered because so much has flowed downstream. While drinking water has been tested and deemed safe, many residents are becoming ill from the evaporating oil and the polluted water has contaminated farm land along the river. The river’s rising waters have complicated the clean-up and made it even more difficult. Exxon is paying for the entire clean up, as well as all of the damages incurred by those affected, including everything from hotel rooms to livestock feed.
To top it all off, the EPA has deemed Exxon’s clean-up plan insufficient and asked the company to revise half of their strategy. Schweitzer, though, has also criticized the EPA for not moving quickly enough. He told NPR that nine days after the spill, the agency still had not collected or tested any soil samples.
Given that this is the second major oil spill that we’ve seen in just a little over a year, it makes you wonder why we continue to use such a polluting resource. There’s little urgency among Americans for a non-oil future, despite the environmental devastation drilling has caused in our country. The only way to avoid these disasters is to move toward greener, more renewable sources of energy.
All images © USFWS Mountain Prairie via Creative Commons