Oiled, soiled and spoiled 

What happened when Montana’s Yellowstone River turned black–and how that environmental disaster is influencing pipelines nationwide

Riverside Park baked under a harsh central Montana sun on Aug. 6, 2010. Wind howled through groves of cottonwoods along the Yellowstone River, swirling eddies of cotton past RV pads, a concrete boat ramp, a playground and a volleyball court. By mid-afternoon, thunderstorms were rolling in across the prairie.

A string of officials gathered on the river’s south bank, embroiled in a discussion about the erosion at work that summer. They represented the City of Laurel, the Army Corps of Engineers, the Williston Basin Interstate Pipeline and pipeline subsidiaries of Cenex, ConocoPhillips and ExxonMobil. The flow of the Yellowstone had already dropped 40,000 cubic feet per second from its crest in early June, but the meeting wasn’t exclusive to the 2010 flood season. Erosion on the Yellowstone’s south bank at Riverside Park had locals concerned about the long-term integrity of several oil and natural gas pipelines extending beneath the park and the river. The city asked for help from one or all of the represented companies in fortifying the south bank against additional erosion, to protect the river, the Laurel community and the environment downstream against a potential catastrophe.

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Laurel had reason to worry about floodwaters. Little more than a year earlier, an 8-inch natural gas pipeline failed when flooding scoured the riverbed and exposed it to the elements. The pipe ruptured at a girth weld, releasing a geyser of natural gas from the surface of the river. Emergency responders evacuated locals along the Yellowstone in Laurel and temporarily shut down nearby roadways. It took several hours for operators at the Williston Basin Interstate Pipeline Company to close the pipeline’s valves. The company responded to the rupture by replacing the failed line with a 16-inch pipe buried even deeper beneath the riverbed.

The public safety and environmental concerns from that incident would eventually pale in comparison to the events of the following year, both in Montana and nationally. In April 2010, BP’s Deepwater Horizon platform off the coast of Louisiana exploded. Oil gushed into the Gulf of Mexico from an ocean floor wellhead for months at a rate of nearly 53,000 barrels a day. Eleven platform workers were killed, and in the weeks that followed, curtains of crude washed up on beaches and wetlands all along the coast. Photos of oil-drenched birds, skimmer ships and blackened containment booms dominated the public eye throughout the early summer. The incident, now realized as the industry’s largest-ever marine oil spill, highlighted the dangers of oil released into an ecosystem. The ruptured Deepwater wellhead was finally capped July 15.

Ten days later, on the evening of July 25, the Midwest experienced its own historic environmental disaster. Shortly before 6 p.m., a 30-inch pipeline beneath the Kalamazoo River near Marshall, Mich., ruptured, releasing a plume of toxin-laden tar sands crude being pumped south from Alberta. The pipeline’s owner, Enbridge Energy, originally estimated the spill at 877,000 gallons. The impacts were devastating—thousands of turtles, birds and mammals coated in oil, residents forced to drink bottled water for months, numerous lawsuits filed against Enbridge by locals and environmental groups.

Environmental Protection Agency crews later stated they recovered 1.1 million gallons of oil. The cleanup cost, originally estimated around $5 million, skyrocketed to $765 million by summer 2012.

If any of those incidents came up in conversation on the banks of the Yellowstone in Riverside Park Aug. 6, the exchange isn’t mentioned in a new investigative report released last month by the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration. The various officials disbanded before the weather turned sour, and the south bank remained unfortified despite repeated pleas to pipeline industry reps from the City of Laurel.

The meeting did reveal a key development in the community: Local officials were growing increasingly concerned about how floodwaters could alter the Yellowstone at Riverside Park. The conversations would continue right up to summer 2011, when plumes of oil would come to characterize the nation’s perception of the pristine waterway. But there was little in the hot central Montana air Aug. 6 to indicate that Riverside—once home to German and Japanese prisoners of war—would become ground zero in a chain of events leading to state and federal investigations, congressional hearings and a critical look not just at existing regulations but at the status of pipelines beneath waterways nationwide.

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