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Montana lawmakers want pipeline study finished

Published on NewsOK Modified: December 24, 2012 at 1:45 pm •  Published: December 24, 2012
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BILLINGS, Mont. (AP) — Two U.S. senators from Montana are urging federal safety regulators to wrap up a yearlong study into whether oil spills into rivers, lakes and other water bodies across the U.S. have resulted from inadequately buried pipelines.

The Department of Transportation study was launched by an order from Congress following an Exxon Mobil pipeline spill last year that spewed an estimated 1,500 barrels of oil into the Yellowstone River.

Exxon's Silvertip Pipeline had been installed just a few feet beneath the riverbed and broke after erosion left it exposed to raging floodwaters.

To prevent a repeat of that accident, U.S. Senators Max Baucus and Jon Tester wrote in a recent letter to the Department of Transportation that the agency must do a better job of analyzing potential risks to pipelines. The letter was addressed to Cynthia Quarterman, administrator for the agency's Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration.

"The destruction caused by the July 2011 ExxonMobil oil spill in the Yellowstone River at Laurel, Mont., revealed the need for stronger pipeline safety standards," the two Democrats wrote. "Identifying and addressing gaps in pipeline safety before they lead to devastation is not only an obvious goal, it is an achievable one."

A spokeswoman for Baucus' office said Monday the senators had not yet received a reply.

A Transportation Department spokesman said safety regulators were working to meet a Jan. 3 deadline to deliver results of their study to Congress.

There are more than 70,000 water crossings nationwide for pipelines carrying natural gas, crude oil and other hazardous materials, according to government data provided to The Associated Press. Of those crossings, more than 11,000 involve pipelines carrying oil and other hazardous liquids across major bodies of water, defined as crossings of 100 feet or greater.

If the Transportation Department determines inadequately buried pipelines contributed to past spills, Congress wants the agency to reconsider its pipeline rules and come up with improvements.

After the Yellowstone spill, Exxon re-buried the Silvertip line dozens of feet beneath the riverbed. Other oil companies followed suit after surveys revealed widespread erosion problems for pipelines in Montana.

Montana officials are continuing to investigate the natural resource damages caused by the Silvertip spill. Results are expected possibly in the spring, said Bob Gibson with Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks.

"After that it will come to a long negotiating process with Exxon Mobil where we say, 'Here's what we think the problem is, and here's what we think is the solution,'" Gibson said.

The natural resource damage assessment is separate from a $1.6 million settlement reached earlier this year between the state and Exxon over the company's water pollution violations.