Those of us who remember the Yellowstone Pipeline Company petroleum pipeline easement renewal process through the Flathead Indian Reservation in the mid-1990s would not be surprised by the actions of Exxon relating to the 2011 Yellowstone River spill (see "Oiled, soiled and spoiled," Feb. 7). Between 1986 and 1992, at least 71 leak or spill incidents happened along the pipeline route from Billings to Spokane. Major spills occurred on the reservation and weren't seriously addressed until the easement was due for renewal.
At a meeting that I attended while serving as a Missoula County Commissioner, it was apparent that the tribal issues were either not understood or ignore by pipeline officials. Instead, they focused on company-suggested compensation to the tribe for the proposed new easement. Tribal Chairman Mickey Pablo made numerous attempts to encourage Yellowstone to address the concerns of the tribe which included adequate cleanup of past spills, restoration of damaged areas, new safeguards to prevent future incidents and sensitivity to tribal sacred areas where the pipeline crossed or abutted.
Rather than address those issues in a way that would satisfy the tribe, the company continued to sweeten the compensation offer to no avail. Unsatisfied and believing the company was not negotiating in good faith, it was ordered to cease operations through the reservation. Raising the compensation package once more without addressing the tribal issues failed and the company closed the pipeline and began truck-hauling, then rail-hauling its products around the reservation. That process continues to this day.
Exxon and Conoco are controllers of the Yellowstone pipeline. Until state and federal governments exercise the same courage as the tribe did in the 1990s, we will continue to see more incidents like the Yellowstone River spill. Whether or not regulatory processes are in place, we need to emphasize the responsibilities and liabilities of resource developers who have been successful in blaming agencies and regulators for their mistakes. Clearly the highest levels of expertise in resource development reside with the industries rather than the regulators. The Exxon Valdez, the Deepwater Horizon, the Amoco Cadiz, the Yellowstone River spill and the Flathead Reservation spills to name only a few in the recent past should remind us all, particularly those in the industry, that more needs to be done. I hope the Independent does its share by continual investigations in this area.