Causes of Yellowstone River Spill Still Unknown, Montana Landowners Fear Consequences

In the July 12 edition of The Watcher, we observed how disasters like the Yellowstone River oil spill in Montana underscore the need for safeguards and oversight of industry. On Thursday, members of the House Subcommittee on Railroads, Pipelines, and Hazardous Materials held a hearing to investigate the Silvertip Pipeline oil spill, but received no answers as to the causes of the pipeline failure.

The Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA), the agency with regulatory responsibility over pipeline transportation safety, cannot even begin investigating the incident until August at the earliest, PHMSA administrator Cynthia Quarterman told the committee. PHMSA plans to investigate the cause of the pipeline break once flood waters subside, but even then it will take the agency over a year to complete its inquiries. ExxonMobil Pipeline Company president Gary Pruessing said that no integrity issues were identified during company inspections of the pipeline, though some have noted inconsistencies in the information provided by the company.

While industry executives, regulators, and elected officials in Washington take part in the lengthy process of identifying what caused the spill that leaked an estimated 42,000 gallons of crude oil into the Yellowstone River, Montana residents fear its ramifications. Around 40 landowners reported property contamination after the spill. Farmer Mike Scott worries "that the remediation efforts will take forever" and fears for his livelihood, Scott told CNN reporter Patrick Oppmann. Scott’s wife Alexis is concerned about the health risks posed to both humans and animals in the area.

As we pointed out last week, disasters like this should remind policy makers of the reasons for regulation – reasons that have been lost amid calls to slash rules and weaken the authority of regulatory agencies. Sen. Jon Tester (D-MT) put this in perspective in his testimony at the July 14 hearing. He said:

[I]n this situation, Exxon was tasked with regulating itself. Regulators were not on the job and now we’re paying a price for it. There are always things we can do to streamline and adjust regulations to make sure they are still protecting consumers and the public without strangling small business. But without regulations, we’ll see more economic meltdowns and oil spills and corporate takeovers that hurt small businesses.

back to Blog