A breach in an oil pipeline in eastern Montana on Saturday morning has left 6,000 residents of the town of Glendive without safe drinking water. After some residents reported that they could smell and taste oil in their water, samples taken from their homes and from the town's water treatment plant showed elevated levels of volatile organic compounds (VOCs), predominantly benzene.
They're now reliant on water being trucked in by the company that owns the pipeline, the Wyoming-based Bridger Pipeline LLC.
The breach, which resulted from a rupture in a 12-inch steel pipe, spilled about 50,000 gallons of oil into the Yellowstone River about nine miles upstream of Glendive. Parts of the river near the spill are frozen, which officials had initially hoped would help to keep the spill contained. But now the ice is hampering the efforts of cleanup crews.
"It makes it more challenging than a standard open-water spill," Bill Salvin, a spokesperson for Bridger, told VICE News.
Crews are currently working in two locations to capture oil that's underneath the ice, Salvin said. In areas where the river is not frozen, they're looking for oil sheen atop that water that could be recovered using boats.
The company is also snaking a sensor tool through the line to find the exact location of the rupture so the line can be repaired. The pipeline was last inspected in 2012.
"Bridger Pipeline has taken full responsibility for what happened and they have been on scene 24/7 since Saturday when the breach was discovered," Glendive Mayor Jerry Jimison told VICE News. "Unfortunately it appears some of the benzene from the spill has made it into our city intake system."
Bridger is aiming to bring in about 10,000 gallons of water per day, or about two gallons per person who uses the city water system, Jimison said. The water will be distributed by the Department of Disaster and Emergency Services.
Scientists at the Montana Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) are reviewing the results of the water sample tests today, Kristi Ponozzo, DEQ public policy director, said. They're expected to release specific information about the VOC levels in the water Tuesday.
The Centers for Disease Control has told Bridger that the levels found in the water don't pose a short term public health risk. According to the US Environmental Protection Agency, consuming elevated levels of benzene over many years could cause anemia or increase cancer risk.
"As far as long term, we're not there yet," Ponozzo told VICE News. "Right now, we're just trying to make sure people have safe water to drink and will continue to have safe water to drink."
On Sunday, Montana governor Steve Bullock declared a state of emergency in Glendive, which will bring resources to the town to aid in cleanup and water distribution and to evaluate any effects on wildlife.
"The health and safety of Montanans in the area impacted by this oil spill is my top concern," Bullock said in a statement. "Local, state, and federal officials are working together to quickly assess this situation, and ensure that those responsible are held accountable, the oil is cleaned up, and all damages are addressed."
This is the second oil spill on the Yellowstone River in four years. In July 2011, an ExxonMobil pipeline broke near Laurel, about three hours southwest of Glendive, spilling about 63,000 gallons of oil. The company is facing up to $3.4 million in state and federal fines.
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