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Federal officials say they won’t reconsider a $1 million fine imposed on Exxon Mobil Corp. for the spill of an estimated 1,500 barrels of crude oil in 2011 into the Yellowstone River in east-central Montana that contaminated drinking water and killed local wildlife.
Officials of the Department of Transportation’s (DOT’s) Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA) ruled June 12 that Exxon ignored the agency’s warnings that the 12-inch-diameter Silvertip Pipeline, buried just below the riverbed, was susceptible to rupture if the river flooded. Under federal regulations, such pipelines must be buried at least four feet beneath a riverbed.
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The spring and summer of 2011 brought heavy rains to the Yellowstone, causing the river to overflow its banks in the region’s biggest flood in decades. The rush of water eroded the riverbed, evidently exposing the 20-year-old pipeline to rocky debris that caused the breach.
After the spill, federal officials reviewed the rules on how deep a pipeline should be buried beneath a riverbed, and ruled in 2013 that the four-foot depth was adequate. ExxonMobil, however, has gone further and has since installed a new leg of the pipeline, which is buried several dozen feet below the riverbed.
The crude oil – 1,500 barrels of it, or about 63,000 gallons – spilled out and fouled 85 miles of the river, killing local fauna and tainting the drinking water needed by the residents of the nearby city of Glendive, Mont. State officials ruled Jan. 23 that water had since been cleaned and was safe to drink.
At the same time though, Jeffrey Wiese, associate administrator of the PHMSA, upheld the agency’s determination that ExxonMobil hadn’t been prepared for potential flooding of the Yellowstone River that could erode and eventually breach the pipeline, as had happened previously to similar pipelines in the area. ExxonMobil responded that the Yellowstone conduit had survived such floods and so wasn’t at risk.
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The PHMSA also concluded that ExxonMobil didn’t take adequate steps to keep the impact of the spill to a minimum. This oversight, the agency said, led to the impact on local wildlife and drinking water and required a cleanup effort that lasted several months.
ExxonMobil had sought to get the PHMSA to drop these and some other findings, and to reduce the amount of the $1 million penalty, but the agency held fast, and added that the fine must be paid within 20 days, or by July 2.
In early 2012, not long after the preliminary cleanup of the river was completed, the ExxonMobil Pipeline Co. (EMPCo), an affiliate of the oil major based in Irving, Texas, signed what is called an Administrative Order on Consent (AOC) with the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).
The AOC is a legal agreement between a polluter and the EPA requiring the offender to pay for any loss incurred in an accident like the Yellowstone spill and cease the activity that led to the incident. The terms of this particular AOC require EMPCo to increase its monitoring of the pipeline and do more to clean up the affected area. Related: Could This Renewable Fuel Kill The EV Market In One Fell Swoop?
Already, ExxonMobil has paid $2.3 million to the state of Montana to cover the costs of its own response to the spill, as well as a state fine of $1.6 million.
By Andy Tully of Oilprice.com
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Andy Tully is a veteran news reporter who is now the news editor for Oilprice.com