July 17, 2013. Lodge Grass, MT. An early July gasoline pipe break on Crow reservation land was just the latest oil and gas spill in the area in recent years. And while Phillips 66, the owner of the pipeline, admits it doesn’t know how or why the line broke or if any gasoline entered the region’s waterways, the corporation insists there is no danger and nothing was adversely affected.
A Phillips 66 crew works to repair the Seminoe pipeline in Lodge Grass, MT. Image courtesy of TheRepublic.com.
On July 2, 2013, an 8-inch pipeline carrying gasoline from Billings, Montana throughout much of the Northwest burst 15 miles southwest of the small town of Lodge Grass. Phillips 66 officials immediately shut the pipeline down and estimated that no more than 25,000 gallons of gasoline leaked into the surrounding lands.
Phillips 66 and EPA respond
According to company spokesmen, the Lodge Grass leak was detected when workers in Oklahoma noticed a drop in pressure in the Montana pipeline. As reported by NBC News, Dennis Nuss of Phillips 66 alerted the media that the pipeline was shut down within five minutes of the break detection.
Nuss went on to assure area residents that the 25,000 gallon estimate the company initially released may actually be less than that. Although, neither he nor the company had an alternate estimate. The pipeline that burst on the Crow reservation carries roughly 1.9 million gallons of liquid petroleum products per day. Initial reports from the company put the estimate of leaked gasoline at only 4,200 gallons. "At this time, there is no anticipated health impact to the community," Nuss announced, "The safety of the community and the environment are of the utmost importance to our company.”
The US Dept. of Transportation also tried to put a positive spin on the environmental disaster. Damon Hill, a spokesman for the agency said, "That's not saying it won't have an effect on the environment, but it's not like oil which seeps into the ground and sticks around." Tribal officials had a more urgent reaction. “We are concerned," Crow spokesman Darrin Old Coyote said, "We're trying to resolve the leak and work out the details later." He also confirmed that initial tribal estimates of the leak were as high as 42,000 gallons.
As confirmed by the Montana Standard, neither federal officials nor Phillips 66 has any information regarding the cause of the burst pipeline, how much fuel was leaked, how long it was leaking, whether or not any waterways were tainted or whether there is any danger of additional leaks. If history is any indicator, this wasn’t the first gas spill in the area and it won’t be the last.
Repeated leaks and spills on reservation
While government and corporate spokesmen reassure Montana residents with uncertain promises, environmental and tribal activists are outraged over the repeated petroleum leaks and spills. In 1997, the same pipeline burst twice in one week, once in Lodge Grass, MT and once in Banner, WY. In 2001, another petroleum pipeline owned by the same company broke in Conrad, MT. All of the above gas and oil leaks were from Conoco or Phillips pipelines, prior to or after the corporations’ 2002 merger.
In 2011, it was Exxon Mobile’s turn to contaminate the region. Almost two years to the day before the most recent Lodge Grass disaster, an Exxon pipeline carrying crude oil burst and leaked an estimated 63,000 gallons of oil into Montana’s Yellowstone River.
Rather than take the government and Phillips 66’s word for it, The Prairie Star news went and talked to residents in the immediate area around this month’s Lodge Grass gasoline spill. They were hopeful, but extremely worried about contamination of their land. “We’ve got a reservoir that our cows drink out of,” Lodge Grass resident and rancher Dale Herman told the outlet regarding his and his son’s combined 400 head of cattle, “We’re kind of concerned about that.”
The cause of past pipe breaks in the area has been the unstable and moving ground. Investigators and residents alike are betting that was the cause of the leak two weeks ago as well. To protect against additional breaks and subsequent spills, Phillips 66 is reportedly taking a number of extraordinary steps. In addition to replacing sections of aged pipe with new, steel-plated pipe, the company is also burying the line twice as deep as normal, which is usually 36 inches below ground according to federal guidelines.
Representatives from the Crow reservation confirmed that nobody will know the actual level of damage or danger until a series of soil samples can be taken and tested. Federal clean-up assistance is temporarily on hold pending the results of those tests.
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