January 17, 2015 | Montana Department of Environmental Quality
On Saturday morning, an employee in Bridger Pipeline's Casper, Wyoming control room noticed unusual pressure readings at a pipeline near Glendive, Montana. According to Montana's Department of Environmental Quality, "System pressure alarms sounded and the pipeline was shut down."
But in that time, approximately 40,000 gallons of crude oil, mostly from North Dakota's Bakken formation, leaked into the Yellowstone River, coating its ice with light brown spots. Here's a bird's-eye view, courtesy of a drone that surveyed the spill site for the Montana Department of Environmental Quality. It's strangely pretty:
This icy brown river is where residents of nearby Glendive get their drinking water. Early testing of the town's tap water has shown traces of oil in the form of volatile organic compounds (VOCs), specifically benzene. After a quick glance at the CDC's list of possible health effects of high exposure, it's pretty clear you do NOT want this stuff in your water: vomiting, seizures, irregular heartbeats, coma and death. So for the time being, residents have been told not to drink or cook with it.
For the Yellowstone River and nearby residents, this scene is, unfortunately, a familiar one. In July of 2011, an ExxonMobil pipeline ruptured spilling 63,000 gallons of oil into the Yellowstone River near Billings, Montana. Cally Carswell of High Country News points out that safety regulations have not really changed in the interim.
The problem extends much further than Montana. As Inside Energy's Emily Guerin reported, North Dakota's spill rate — the number of oil and saltwater spills per well — has nearly doubled since the beginning of the state's drilling boom.
InsideClimate News reports that the Poplar Pipeline and its owner, Bridger Pipeline LLC, "has had nearly double the number of incidents per mile of pipe than the average company with pipelines carrying oil, gas or other hazardous liquids over the last six years." What's more, the pipeline was built in the 1950s using faulty welding techniques.
As Inside Energy has reported, the Poplar Pipeline's advanced age is not exactly unique. Jordan Wirfs-Brock examined data from the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration and found that more operating crude oil pipeline in the U.S. was built in the 1950s than in any other decade. In her series "The Pipeline Network," Stephanie Joyce reported that these spills are an indication that the aging pipeline infrastructure is struggling to keep up with the nation-wide oil and gas boom.