Early in the morning on July 2, 2011, I walked down the gravel road on our Montana farm to let the goats out to graze for the day. I found an oily rainbow sheen on the Yellowstone River flowing through our hay fields and pasture, plus large clumps of crude oil sticking to trees, cattails and brush. The oily water was in our sloughs, our pond and the creek that runs along the eastern edge of the farm. I checked the local news on my phone and found that an Exxon oil pipeline had ruptured underneath the Yellowstone River upstream. More than 300 people upstream from us were evacuated, but no one had thought to notify those of us further from the spill. The smell of hydrocarbons was overwhelming.
In the end, more than 63,000 gallons of crude oil spilled into the Yellowstone River from what we later learned was a “guillotine cut” in Exxon’s Silvertip pipeline, which lay in a trench only four to five feet under the Yellowstone River. Snowmelt combined with spring rains had caused heavy flooding, and the river bottom was scoured away, leaving the oil pipeline exposed. All it took was a heavy object being tossed down the river to break the pipeline in half. After spending $135 million on the cleanup, Exxon recovered less than 1 percent of the oil spilled.
It took Exxon over an hour to completely shut down the pipeline, according to the report filed by federal regulators. Federal investigators found that damage would have been reduced by about two thirds if the pipeline controllers in Houston had closed the appropriate valve as soon as a problem was detected. It took them three days to assemble a full cleanup response team.
On July 4, 2011, my mother drove me to the hospital because I was suffering from nausea, a severe headache that hadn’t gone away in two days, dizziness and painful breathing. The doctor diagnosed me with acute hydrocarbon…