Officials on the Blackfeet Reservation this morning confirmed that an oil leak occurred on a flow line in the Southwest Cut Bank Sand Unit on June 12. Grinnell Day Chief, oil and gas manager for the Blackfeet Department of Commerce, says the company that owns the line repaired the leak in June but neglected to report the incident, which came to light when landowner Tim McDonald contacted tribal officials on July 12. Representatives from the tribe, the Bureau of Land Management and the EPA all visited the site, and the BLM estimates roughly 15 to 20 barrels of oil—or 630 to 840 gallons—leaked from the line into a coulee, eventually spilling into Cut Bank Creek. Indian Country Environmental Associates, an independent contractor in Browning, was authorized on July 13 to conduct cleanup efforts.
Andy Pierce of FX Energy Inc., the company that owns the flow line, says the company was unaware of the extent of the spill when they made repairs in June. The flow line connects two stripper wells to an oil gathering system. Each of those wells produces about a barrel of oil a day, Pierce says.
“On the scale of, for example, the Exxon leak down on the Yellowstone River, it’s miniscule," Pierce says. "But it’s still a serious matter. We take this very seriously.”
Pierce adds that the ExxonMobil pipeline rupture in Montana earlier this month, which spilled an estimated 42,000 gallons into the Yellowstone River, "carries more oil in an hour than our field makes in a year.”
“We weren’t aware of it," Pierce says. "These little flow lines will leak from time to time…we saw the leak and fixed it and thought that’s all there was to it...We thought we had it all.”
Day Chief says the nature of the leak doesn't change the fact that resource extraction companies operating on the reservation are required to immediately report such incidents to tribal authorities so third-party containment efforts and cleanup can begin. That process "wasn't followed here."
“As the oil and gas director for the tribe, it’s going to make me real leery of that particular operator in the future," Day Chief says of FX Energy. "This is something that should have been reported and the proper protocol wasn’t followed. We’ve had minor leaks in the past by different operators and those are immediately brought to our attention. It should have been the same way here.”
In fact, Day Chief believes that much of the damage caused by the leak may well have been prevented had FX Energy contacted the tribe earlier. With prompt response, he says Indian Country Environmental Associates could have prevented the oil from spilling into Cut Bank Creek.
“There’s no other way to describe it other than it was just negligence on their behalf,” Day Chief says.
David Spotted Eagle of the Blackfeet Environmental Office says the FX Energy leak is almost identical to the 2008 incident involving Montana's Provident Energy Associates. The Provident storage tanker spill created a 10-by-20 foot pond of oil in Pondera County, killed more than a dozen migratory birds and leaked into the Two Medicine River. Indian Country Environmental Associates handled that incident as well, and Spotted Eagle says “the cleanup was a success.”
A group of environmental activists visited the site in early July to confirm a tip they'd heard on the reservation. One of them, former Browning resident Reed Perry, says he was "appalled. We heard about it totally by rumor." He adds that "the way we found [the leak] was from the smell." Perry finds the leak particularly troubling because it took officials over a month to publicly report the incident.