BILLINGS, Mont. — Exxon Mobil Corp. is working with government agencies on a plan to speed up the response to oil spills along Montana's upper Yellowstone River, after a major spill last year left local officials scrambling to deal with an ill-defined threat, state and federal officials said.
The goal is to provide enough training and resources to take action on major pipeline, refinery or railway spills within 24 hours, or before outside help can arrive.
Exxon would pay to plan and possibly equip the stepped-up response under a settlement with the state over pollution violations from its July pipeline break near Laurel.
The effort is in the early stages and the company has not yet submitted a formal proposal. State approval is needed for the work to count toward Exxon's remaining $1.3 million obligation under the settlement.
The company's 12-inch Silvertip pipeline broke beneath the Yellowstone one weekend last July, releasing an estimated 63,000 gallons of oil. Less than 1 percent of the oil that spilled was recovered during a cleanup that cost an estimated $135 million after pipeline repairs were factored in.
Officials fear some oil leftover from Silvertip could re-emerge during high waters this spring. Samples of possible oil sheen found on the river this week near Laurel are being tested, and results are due this month from the Montana Department of Environmental Quality.
DEQ scientist Laura Alvey said Exxon will be responsible for cleaning up any more oil discovered from last year's spill.
The company is currently monitoring about 45 sites along the river where oil was left in place because officials determined removal would be more damaging, Alvey said.
The plan for future spills would cover seven counties in south-central and southeast Montana — Yellowstone, Carbon, Stillwater, Sweetgrass, Park, Gallatin and Big Horn. Most of the region's oil and gas facilities, including three refineries, are concentrated in two counties — Yellowstone and Carbon counties.
Steve Merritt with the Environmental Protection Agency said the hope is to have any needed training done and equipment in place by the end of the year to handle a significant spill.
Yellowstone County's director of disaster and emergency services, Duane Winslow, said that in the future, rural volunteer firefighters could be trained in spill response "so it's not just Exxon's 25-person strike force or whatever they had that Saturday morning."
Exxon eventually brought in hundreds of cleanup contractors but that took time because many came from the Gulf Coast, where spills are more frequent.
An Exxon spokesperson said it was premature to comment since it has not submitted its proposal. But an Exxon emergency response advisor, John Dunn, said this week that the company wants to make the effort "as productive as possible."
Pipelines, railways and oil industry trucking routes cross the entire region — a mix of developed and pristine areas that includes the Yellowstone River's world famous trout fishery and Montana's largest city, Billings.
The spill marred about 70 miles of riverbank and damaged scores of farms, residences and other riverfront properties. No major drinking water sources were contaminated.
Because the river was flooding at dangerous levels during the spill, Merritt said there was little that local emergency responders could have done to stop the oil from moving downstream even with a better response plan in place.
But he said better communications among government agencies and the company could have made downstream residents and communities more prepared.
Downstream counties east of Yellowstone were slow to be notified of the spill, delaying the shut-down of some water intakes.
There were also complaints that a late-night evacuation order that followed the spill did not cover people living beyond the immediate vicinity of the pipeline break.
Merritt said having sufficient equipment and training in place to handle the next spill becomes all the more important as an energy boom sweeps into eastern Montana from the Bakken oil fields North Dakota. More drilling is increasing the amount of crude being piped, railed and trucked in the Yellowstone watershed.
"We recognize the emerging oil transportation that's going to happening because of the Bakken," Merritt said. "We want to make sure all those operators that are here and all those refineries that have been there for a long time are engaged in this process."