ExxonMobil Settles Oil Spill Case

Tuesday, September 27, 2016 @ 03:09 PM gHale

ExxonMobil Corp. will pay $12 million for environmental damages caused by a pipeline break that spilled 63,000 gallons of oil into Montana’s Yellowstone River.

The spill also spurred a debate over pipeline safety rules.

The payment will settle claims from the U.S. and state governments the crude oil killed fish and wildlife and damaged thousands of acres along an 85-mile stretch of the river that flows through southern Montana.

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Court approval is pending before U.S. Magistrate Judge Carolyn Ostby.

Exxon could face further penalties for violations of federal water pollution laws, which the settlement did not address.

The pipeline break upstream of Billings, Montana’s largest city, required a monthslong cleanup.

A U.S. Department of Transportation investigation found Exxon workers failed to adequately heed warnings the 20-year-old pipeline was at risk from flooding.

Gov. Steve Bullock, Attorney General Tim Fox and representatives of the U.S. Justice Department announced the $12 million settlement at the site of the pipeline break in Laurel.

“All of us as Montanans lost something when that spill occurred,” Bullock said. “This money is to make sure not just that we’re compensated but the pelicans are where they should be, the fish are where they should be.”

Assistant U.S. Attorney General John Cruden said restoration of the river is not done.

“We’re going to work to bring the river back to where it would have been but for that spill event,” Cruden said.

Some $4.7 million of the settlement will go to shoreline and channel restoration and improvement, Fox said. Another $3.6 million will be for wildlife habitat restoration, $2.4 million for improving recreational access, $900,000 for restoration planning and $400,000 for improving white pelican breeding areas, he said.

Montana will receive $9.5 million from the settlement, and the federal government will get the remaining $2.5 million.

Exxon previously said it spent $135 million on cleanup and repair work. Separately, the company has paid $2.6 million to resolve federal safety and state pollution violations.

The settlement is “an adequate resolution to restore, rehabilitate and or replace injured natural resources and services to pre-spill conditions,” said company spokeswoman Ashley Smith Alemayehu.

The accident sparked a national discussion over the adequacy of safety rules for thousands of pipelines crossing beneath rivers, lakes and other waterways. Many of those pipelines underwent installation decades ago in shallow trenches and can be left exposed after floodwaters scour river bottoms.

In the years since the spill — and at the urging of safety regulators — oil and pipeline companies, including Exxon, have re-installed some lines at greater depths to reduce the risk of accidents.

However, there still are no regulatory mandates for lines to be deeply buried. In January 2015, another shallow pipeline broke and spilled 30,000 gallons further downstream along the Yellowstone near the town of Glendive.

Penalties against Exxon for possible federal Clean Water Act violations stemming from the 2011 spill have not yet been levied. An investigation by the Environmental Protection Agency continues, agency spokesman Richard Mylott said.