Exxon Spill Clean Up Drags On

Monday, August 22, 2011 @ 03:08 PM gHale

Workers continue cleaning up Yellowstone River. Officials estimate clean up will continue well into November.

Workers continue cleaning up Yellowstone River. Officials estimate clean up will continue well into November.

A major oil spill in the Yellowstone River has proven more difficult to clean up than expected and could go on for several more months, said an Exxon Mobil Pipeline Co. executive.

Areas hit hardest by the July spill should be clean by the first half of October, company vice president Geoff Craft said. That includes a 20-mile stretch of the Yellowstone stretching from the spill site near Laurel downstream to Billings.

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But scattered sites still need work, including contaminated river sections downstream of Billings and two large islands in the heavily impacted area. Work in those areas could continue until Thanksgiving, Craft said.

Slowing the cleanup effort has been the task of removing crude from hundreds of debris piles deposited by the same spring floodwaters widely believed to have triggered the 12-inch pipeline’s failure. Also, Exxon did not want to bring in more workers than necessary to avoid trampling the riverbank, Craft said.

“Nobody would have guessed how hard it would be,” Craft said. “We don’t want to do more harm than good by bringing in too many people or too many vehicles. … It’s very labor intensive.”

Within days of the 1,000-barrel spill, the Environmental Protection Agency ordered Exxon Mobil to complete its remediation work by Sept 9. But officials said that date was not a hard deadline.

EPA on-scene coordinator Craig Myers said the cleanup “is much more dictated by progress in the field instead of a date on the calendar.” Myers added final approval of the work would have to come from Montana officials.

About 1,000 people are working to mop up the spill, including 850 Exxon Mobil employees and contractors working along dozens of miles of riverbank.

Because the river was flooding when the pipeline failed, the spilled crude spread deep into the woods and across agricultural fields, making it difficult in some cases to find and remove.

On Thursday, crews were picking their way through hundreds of acres of dense underbrush — lopping off oil-stained plants and tree branches with hand clippers and then hauling the material away in plastic bags.

Nearby, a small excavator was pulling apart a tangle of logs and branches — one of many debris piles company representatives said they would have to sort by hand to remove anything stained with oil.

Despite the slow pace, state and federal regulators said there has been significant progress in the seven weeks since the spill.

Teams sent out to find oil are no longer reporting significant pockets of pooled crude, said Myers. Instead, workers are concentrating on removing oil-stained vegetation and the debris piles.

Remnants of the spill likely will linger long after the crews are gone, said Sandi Olsen, head of the remediation division of the Montana Department of Environmental Quality. But Olsen said any remaining deposits of oil were quickly degrading and unlikely to pose a long-term threat.

“Our parameters for cleanup are that it does not pose a risk to human health for the environmental,” Olsen said. “A thin layer (of oil) — that’s going to be there until it weathers away. It’s not going to pose a risk, but you can see it.”

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