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Montana governor reviewing oil, gas pipeline safety

By Reuters
Monday, July 4, 2011 22:56 EDT
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Montana governor reviewing oil, gas pipeline safety

KALISPELL, Montana (Reuters) – Montana Governor Brian Schweitzer on Monday said authorities will review safety of all oil and gas pipelines that cross waterways in the state and close those that did not meet standards.

“We’ll make the decision over the next couple of days whether to shut off some pipelines,” Schweitzer told Reuters in a telephone interview. “The last thing I want is for another pipeline to break.”

Schweitzer said he made the move after a spill early Saturday from an Exxon Mobil pipeline released into the rain-swollen Yellowstone River near Billings up to 1,000 barrels of oil, or 42,000 gallons.

Schweitzer said the pipeline inspections — the second round he has called for in as many months — will assess the risk of ruptures and leaks in 88 sections of pipeline that cross rivers and streams in the state.

The review will gauge factors including the pipelines’ age, thickness and corrosion, and the condition and operation of all shut-off valves.

Exxon Mobil Corp said on Monday that the spill appeared to be concentrated within a 15-mile stretch of the river between Billings and the nearby town of Laurel, although Tim Thennis, Montana Disaster and Emergency Services duty officer, said he had received reports of oil near the community of Hysham, about 75 miles downstream from Billings.

Gary Pruessing, the president of the company’s pipeline unit, said Exxon still did not know the cause of the leak that spilled oil into the river and added that it may change the way it conducts pipeline safety reviews.

“This will give us additional information to think about when we consider doing risk assessments on any line that has a river crossing anywhere in the country,” Pruessing said during a news conference in Laurel, Montana.

By Monday afternoon, Exxon had received 71 calls from nearby residents asking questions or reporting damage from the spill.

PREVIOUS SAFETY CONCERNS

The spill came just weeks after the company shut down the pipeline in May after the city of Laurel had safety concerns due to the rising levels of the river from rain and runoff.

“At the time we shut down the line … and went down and did a further risk assessment to make sure the site, based on technical knowledge we had, was something we’d feel comfortable to run,” Pruessing said. “We restarted the line feeling like we had a safe operation.”

The U.S. pipeline safety regulator weighed in on the spill on Monday, saying it had warned the company about problems with the pipeline and had begun its own investigation.

“Inspectors are on site and have initiated an investigation into the cause of failure,” said a spokeswoman with the Transportation Department’s Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration.

After inspecting the pipeline in July 2009, PHMSA issued a warning letter to Exxon a year later about oil leaking from some of the valves on the pipeline.

The agency said the valves did not have a means for clearly indicating whether they were open or closed. “There was fresh crude oil on the soil immediately adjacent to the valves,” PHMSA said in its warning letter.

It also faulted Exxon for not following up in a timely manner on atmospheric corrosion issues that were identified during three years of corrosion surveys on the pipeline.

HEALTH, ENVIRONMENTAL IMPACT EYED

As Exxon fielded a team of 200 workers to mop up oil using absorbent booms and pads, the first reports on Monday came in of a resident downstream on the Yellowstone River sickened by the spill.

Mike Scott, co-owner of a goat ranch inundated by the rupture, said his wife, Alexis Bonogofsky, was briefly hospitalized Monday after suffering from what doctors diagnosed as acute hydrocarbon exposure, a condition linked to exposure to petroleum chemicals.

“She started getting shortness of breath, dizziness; we took her to the hospital and they took an X-ray,” said Scott, who also works for the Sierra Club, an environmental group.

Medical staff declined to discuss the diagnosis, citing patient confidentiality.

The Yellowstone River, the longest undammed river in the United States, is renowned for its trout fishing and bird life.

A team of six experts from International Bird Rescue began arriving in Montana on Sunday to work with state and federal wildlife agencies to coordinate the rescue and rehabilitation of birds tarred by the spill.

“There is definitely concern, there is a wonderful riparian habitat there,” said Amy Cilimburg of the Montana Audubon Society.

(Reporting by Laura Zuckerman; Additional reporting by Ilaina Jonas in New York, Tom Doggett in Washington and Emilie Ritter in Montana; Writing by Tim Gaynor; Editing by Peter Bohan, Gary Crosse and Steve Orlofsky)

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