GLENDIVE, Mont. — A cancer-causing component of oil has been detected in the drinking water supply of an eastern Montana city just downstream from a crude oil spill that entered the Yellowstone River.
Elevated levels of benzene were found in water samples taken from a treatment plant that serves about 6,000 people in the agricultural community of Glendive near the North Dakota border, officials said.
Scientists from the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention say the benzene levels are above those recommended for long-term consumption but don't pose a short-term health hazard.
Truckloads of bottled water were coming in Tuesday, and residents were warned not to drink or cook with water from their taps.
Some residents criticized the timing of the Monday advisory, which came more than two days after 50,000 gallons of oil spilled from a break in 12-inch pipeline owned by Wyoming-based Bridger Pipeline Co. It emerged as a concern over the response to the Saturday accident.
Adding to the frustrations was uncertainty over how long the water warning will last and why company and government officials still don't know how to remove crude trapped beneath the ice-covered Yellowstone River.
"It's scary," said Mickey Martini, a 79-year-old Glendive resident. "I don't know how they're going to take care of this."
Martini said she first noticed a smell resembling diesel fuel coming from her tap water Monday night. By Tuesday morning, the bottled water she got from a neighbor had run out. Martini said she was unable to take her daily medicines for a thyroid condition and high cholesterol until she picked up water from a public distribution center later in the day.
Representatives from Montana and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency had said earlier that preliminary tests of the city's water did not show cause for concern. The water treatment plant operated until Sunday afternoon.
Additional tests were ordered Monday after residents complained of the petroleum- or diesel-like smell from their tap water. That's when the high levels of benzene were found.
Benzene was found in the range of 10 to 15 parts per billion, said Paul Peronard with the EPA. Anything above 5 parts per billion is considered a long-term risk, he said.
Peronard acknowledged problems in how officials addressed the city's water supply, but he said they acted based on the best information they had at the time.
Wesley Henderson, a 36-year-old oilfield worker, said he bought 5 gallons of water after his wife noticed a strange odor coming from their tap water.
"It sucks," Henderson said Tuesday. "I didn't find out about the advisory until after I'd been drinking it. My stomach hurt all day yesterday. I don't know if that was just in my mind."
Federal, state and local officials were working on a plan to decontaminate the water system. Glendive Mayor Jerry Jimison said he "didn't have a clue" when the water treatment plant would be back in operation.
Another pipeline spill along the Yellowstone River in Montana released 63,000 gallons of oil in July 2011. An Exxon Mobil Corp. pipeline broke during flooding, and oil washed up along an 85-mile stretch of riverbank.
Exxon Mobil is facing state and federal fines of up to $3.4 million from the spill. The company has said it spent $135 million on the cleanup and other work.
No cost estimate for the Glendive spill was yet available.