Oil Spill into Yellowstone River Raises Concerns about Nation’s Aging Pipelines

Oil Spill into Yellowstone River Raises Concerns about Aging Pipelines

Oil Spill into Yellowstone River Raises Concerns about Aging Pipelines

As a community downstream from the January 17 Poplar Pipeline oil spill into the Yellowstone River works to treat benzene contamination of its water supply, concerns are being raised about oversight of the nation’s aging pipeline network.

Federal investigators and pipeline company officials were trying to determine the cause of the 40,000-gallon spill, which contaminated downstream water supplies in the city of Glendive, Montana, The Associated Press (AP) reports. 

Montana Sen. Jon Tester told the AP that more frequent inspections and stricter safety guidelines are needed for older pipelines. Some pipelines have been in the ground for half a century and Tester said we must ask, “Are they still doing a good job?” Republicans in Congress, with some support from Democrats, are pressing the Obama administration to approve the Keystone XL pipeline from Canada to the Gulf of Mexico. Keystone would cross the Yellowstone about 20 miles upstream of the Poplar Pipeline spill.

A 2011 break in an ExxonMobil pipeline spilled 63,000 gallons of oil near Billings, Montana. That break was blamed on scouring of the river bottom that exposed the pipeline to floodwaters. Poplar officials have said it is too soon to say if the recent spill has a similar. Poplar was constructed in the 1950s and the company says the section that was breached was replaced in the late 1960s or early 1970s. The U.S. Department of Transportation said slightly more than half the pipelines carrying oil, gas, and other liquids were installed prior to 1970. About 150 inspectors oversee the 2.6 million miles of pipelines, according to the AP. A $27 million budget increase approved in 2014 would allow for an additional 100 inspectors, but even at that higher level, the number of inspectors would still be low in relation to the total miles of pipelines.

Authorities are working to clean up Glendive’s public water supply.  The carcinogenic chemical benzene was detected in water coming from the city’s treatment plant, which draws directly from the Yellowstone. The AP reports that free-floating oil has been seen at an intake dam 28 miles from the spill site. The director of the Montana Department of Environmental Quality expressed concern that when the ice breaks up in the spring, oil will spread farther downstream.


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