ExxonMobil has agreed to pay $1.6 million to the state of Montana for a pipeline break that fouled the Yellowstone River last summer—a spill that the oil company now admits was far larger than it previously estimated.
The 12-inch Silvertip pipeline severed on July 1, 2011, spilling more than 1,500 barrels of crude oil—some 63,300 gallons—into the formerly pristine river. The spill, which occurred during flood conditions, fouled dozens of miles of shoreline.
Photos: Montana DEQ
|Reclamation and assessment efforts continue around the Yellowstone River more than six months after a 63,300-gallon oil spill by ExxonMobil.|
Largest State Settlement
Under a newly proposed Administrative Order of Consent, ExxonMobil would pay the state $1.6 million, which includes more than $760,000 in reimbursement for cleanup costs through Dec. 31.
If approved after a 30-day public comment period that ends Feb. 21, the penalty would be the largest in state history, said the Montana Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ), which has coordinated the cleanup effort. At its peak, that effort included U.S. Environmental Protection Agency representatives and involved hundreds of people.
Assessment, monitoring and reclamation are continuing throughout the affected areas, and the order would require Exxon to promptly reimburse the state for those costs going forward. ExxonMobil would also have to conduct future monitoring and testing of the area.
The order would shield ExxonMobil from future litigation by the state, but private lawsuits totaling tens of millions of dollars are still pending. Exxon is trying to get those cases dismissed.
Spill Estimate Increased
Three months in the works, the proposed order was released Jan. 19—the same day that ExxonMobil revised its estimate of the spill from 1,000 barrels to more than 1,500 barrels. Montana Gov. Brian Schweitzer had long disputed Exxon’s estimate as too low.
Schweitzer told the Associated Press that the settlement and revised spill estimate came only after the state pressured ExxonMobil to be more accountable in the aftermath of the spill.
“They're not prepared to give you any accurate information if you don't hold their feet to the fire,” Schweitzer said.
ExxonMobil spokesman Alan Jeffers said the company recalculated the volume “after discovering the pipeline had been completely severed” in the accident, the AP reported. “Jeffers says pipeline breaches typically involve a crack or fissure. That was the assumption used to craft the initial estimate.”
‘Hundreds and Hundreds of Acres Affected’
DEQ Director Richard Opper said the new estimate did not affect the consent order, however, because the penalty was not calculated on a per-barrel basis.
“Our concern was not with the amount of oil; it was with the amount of damage done by the spill, which we thoroughly documented during the summer and fall,” Opper said.
|This month, ExxonMobil revised its estimate of the spill to more than 1,500 barrels. The oil company insisted since the incident that the spill involved 1,000 barrels.|
“It was a significant violation. There were hundreds and hundreds of acres of land affected and it was a major oil spill,” Opper said. He added the penalties likely would have been “a lot higher” if Exxon had not cooperated on the cleanup.
The U.S. Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration is still investigating the cause of the spill.
However, speculation has focused on the shallowness of the pipeline. Before the spill, ExxonMobil said the pipeline was 12 feet under the riverbed. One month after the spill, it said the pipeline had been between five and eight feet under the river. Now, DEQ says the line was four feet under the riverbed.
Experts say floodwaters may have eroded that cover and swept sharp or damaging debris into the line.
In a hearing on the spill last summer, Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D-NJ) noted that PHMSA had issued a number of warnings to the company regarding the pipeline going back to 2003.
The spill spurred a federal alert to operators of all pipeline systems in high-water areas.