Exceptional Snowmelt Flooding Yellowstone River, Hampers Oil Spill Cleanup & May Have Caused It

yellowstone river oil spill photo

photo: Alexis Bonogofsky/National Wildlife Federation.

Some media roundup updates on the ongoing Yellowstone River oil spill: 1) Higher than normal winter snow runoff means cleanup (and assessing the full scale of damage) will be slower than usual; 2) because of that, farmland is being submerged in oily water; and, 3) ExxonMobil admits it took nearly twice as long to shut off the leak than initially reported.According to US Department of Transportation documents, the pipeline under the Yellowstone River was not shut down until 56 minutes after the leak had been first detected. Initially ExxonMobil said it was shut down after just 30 minutes. The discrepancy is being chalked up to ExxonMobil Pipeline Co.'s president speaking without notes to the press, and the the DOT figure was based off figures provided by Exxon. (More: Boston.com)

As for the effect of spring snowmelt-caused flooding, which normally would have peaked already but because of high winter snowfall still continues, the Yellowstone River is now flowing over its banks, the banks are unstable, and there's a high about of floating debris in the river. This is bringing oil into people's yards and into farmer's fields.

Cathy Williams, who raises livestock, wheat, alfalfa and hay with her husband Jerry on some 800 acres of land around Laurel, said high water from the river has washed oil across much of their property.
"It was the night the river peaked, so the river water was flooded all over the place, and that brought oil all over both ranches," she said. "All of our grasslands ... have just thick, black crude stuck to all the grass, trees, low lands."

Williams said their spring wheat crop and alfalfa are both in need of irrigation, but farmers in the area were advised not to take water from the river for the time being. Drinking supplies also are in limbo, she said. (More: Reuters

Furthermore, though the specific cause of the rupture is not known, the current speculation is that the flooding exposed the pipeline, normally 5-8 feet below the river bed, and it got damaged by debris in the water. (More: MSNBC) In May, Exxon shut down the pipeline on the concern that such a situation might exist, but reopened it after assessing the risk as not that high.

As for the effect on wildlife, Exxon has not confirmed any animal deaths, even though at least one bird has been found dead. But Democracy Now! has interviewed Alexis Bonogofsky (who supplied photos for our initial report on the oil spill yesterday) who paints a different picture:

Usually when you go down there [near the river] in the evening...all you can hear is amphibians. It's frogs, it's toads, a lot of insects, crickets and birds. Right now you walk down there at dusk and you don't hear anything.

As for the distance the oil has traveled, reports vary. Conservatively t it has gone somewhere in the 15-25 mile range, while yesterday reports placed it much farther, in the 150 mile range. In such a fluid situation, it's probably wise to take both such low and high estimates with a grain of salt.

More on Oil Spills
Yellowstone River Oil Spill Now Extends 150 Miles Downstream
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