News spread quickly this week about Montana's second oil spill of 2011—or its first, chronologically. Weeks before the Exxon Mobil spill on the Yellowstone River, a flow line leak on the eastern Blackfeet Indian Reservation released 15 to 20 barrels of oil. The mile-long spill eventually reached Cut Bank Creek, yet it went unreported by the line's owner, Salt Lake-based FX Energy Inc., for a month after repairs on the pipe were completed.
Tribal oil and gas manager Grinnell Day Chief says FX Energy, a company with oil and gas interests primarily in Montana, Nevada and Poland, neglected to report the June 12 spill to the tribe as required by tribal policy. The incident only came to light when landowner Tim McDonald alerted the Blackfeet Environmental Office on July 12. Had tribal officials known about the leak earlier, Day Chief believes they could have stopped the spilled oil from reaching Cut Bank Creek. "There's no other way to describe it other than it was just negligence on their behalf," Day Chief says.
FX Energy Vice President Andy Pierce defends the company's actions, stating that they didn't realize the extent of the damage when they repaired the leak. Flooding in the area made it difficult to track the oil down a nearby coulee, 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."
Pierce says the amount of oil leaked on the reservation last month was "miniscule" compared to the Yellowstone River spill. Still, he says, "we spilled some oil, we're going to clean it up."
On July 14, the EPA authorized Browning-based contractor Indian Country Environmental Associates to conduct the cleanup.
The tribe visited the spill site on July 12, along with representatives from the U.S. Bureau of Land Management and FX Energy. They weren't the only ones to see the damage up close. Several activists responded to a rumor about the leak last week, before officials had made the incident public. They obtained directions to the flow line from the Blackfeet Environmental Office. Activist Reed Perry says they were able to zero in on the location of the spilled oil "from the smell."
The incident bears some similarity to the 2008 Provident Energy Associates spill in Pondera County, which leaked oil into the Two Medicine River. Cleanup was a success there, officials say, making the lack of response from FX Energy the primary concern here.
"It's going to make me real leery of that particular operator in the future," Day Chief says. "The proper protocol wasn't followed."