Oiled, soiled and spoiled 

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

Page 4 of 6

A river named Yellowstone

Early on July 3, 2011, Tom Livers got a call from his office at the Montana Department of Environmental Quality telling him to get down to Billings as quickly as possible. He was assigned to coordinate the state’s response to the spill on the Yellowstone, a task normally assigned to the Montana Disaster and Emergency Services Division. He didn’t pack much; he thought he’d only be away from Helena for the span of a meeting or two. His wife got into the passenger’s seat. Their dog jumped into the back.

“When we first hit the river in Livingston, it was obvious that that thing was moving,” Livers says of the Yellowstone, which was surging at nearly 28,000 cubic feet per second. “It was bigger than I’d ever seen it in several decades of being here.”

The temperature in central Montana was working its way toward 100 degrees. More thunderstorms were on the way.

Livers spent most of the drive down to Billings on his Bluetooth, trying to figure out what technical expertise DEQ could bring to the table at the spill command center in the Crowne Plaza. His agency wasn’t set up for emergency response. None of its staff had training in the incident command system made standard at most governmental agencies in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. He was going to be a fish out of water, at least for a while.

But that wasn’t the main issue nagging Livers. He was thinking about the torrent he’d seen from the bridge in Livingston, and about the iconic name that river bore.

“One thing that kept going through my head on the drive down to Billings the first day was, ‘This river’s named Yellowstone, and it’s going to get a lot of attention—appropriately,’” Livers recalls. “Just given that it’s in Montana, it’s the Yellowstone River, did attract lots of attention both nationally and internationally.”

Over the next few weeks, Livers would interact with news crews and reporters from everywhere—The New York Times, Wall Street Journal, even Chinese Central Television.

Exxon had already mustered some 300 response personnel by the time Livers arrived at the Crowne Plaza. There were roughly 20 representatives from the EPA too, Livers says. Many of the spill specialists gathered in Billings had worked Deepwater Horizon together the previous year.

“I was watching a lot of reunions and old friends being reconnected,” Livers says. “But I think this was Exxon’s first big incident since Valdez, so they were really concerned.”

Livers remained in Billings for several days working to “plug” the state into the response operations, but he eventually got out to the actual spill site. First he toured the fringes, where floodwaters had swept pools of oil into oxbows, backwaters, essentially the entire riparian corridor. It had even reached low-lying hayfields and pastures for miles downstream. “The river was running so high you couldn’t get on it,” Livers says. “We got the first fast boats out on the water I think a week into it.”

The image that stuck with Livers most, though, came during his first flyover of the Yellowstone. Thick clumps of downed trees, shrubs and other flood debris in the river’s main channel had captured heavy deposits of the oil, and were steadily wicking it off.

“You’d see these debris piles dotted throughout the river, with long oil plumes stretching downstream from them,” Livers says. “I’ve never seen something that compared with that.”

On the ground, the oil coated scores of reptiles, amphibians and birds. The EPA specifically cautioned cleanup crews not to disturb eagles, as they could be fledging their young. Six specialists with the nonprofit International Bird Rescue, which has led bird rescue efforts in more than 200 oil spills since 1971, arrived in Billings July 3 to lend their expertise cleaning oiled wildlife. The group cared for 131 animals in all, including a Canada goose, a Coopers hawk, six leopard frogs and 109 Woodhouse’s toads. They also continued monitoring several partially oiled bald eagles throughout the summer.

Landowners became fed up with the lack of public meetings and information coming from Exxon officials in the first few days. They began descending on Laurel, pressing the city for answers. City Councilwoman Emelie Easton didn’t know what to tell them. Laurel had been worried for some time that flooding on the Yellowstone might result in an incident. But the reality of a pipeline spill came as a surprise nonetheless.

“I think the city, we were certainly in over our heads because nobody expected anything like this and there weren’t any local resources to depend on for cleanup let alone stopping the oil spill,” Easton says. “That in itself was overwhelming, and then all the claims of property being damaged way downriver … It was really a challenge to try to focus on the fact that we needed to make friends with the Exxon people who in turn had come into town saying, ‘Okay, we’re taking this over. We’re shutting you down.’”

The entire experience still weighs heavily on Livers. Oil spills were a thing that happened elsewhere in the world, not something that happened on the banks of the Yellowstone.

“We watched what happened in Kalamazoo, and it didn’t hit home,” Livers says. “I didn’t recognize we have similar risks here in Montana at the time.”

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