Montana, Exxon-Mobil At Odds Over Oil Spill

Montana and oil giant Exxon-Mobil are at odds over an oil spill in the state's Yellowstone River. Exxon-Mobil says it's doing all it can to clean up the spill and has promised to see the cleanup through. That's not enough for Montana's state officials — particularly its governor. They say that the company hasn't been forthright on the extent of the spill and that they're not doing enough. Michele Norris speaks with Montana Gov. Brian Schweitzer about those accusations — and the steps the state is taking to rectify them.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.

MICHELE NORRIS, host:

And I'm Michele Norris.

Montana governor Brian Schweitzer is not known for being shy and retiring, and the Democrat is certainly not being shy right now in expressing his feelings about a recent oil spill on the Yellowstone River. It happened July 1st when a pipeline owned by Exxon-Mobil ruptured. The pipeline travels under the riverbed, and when it burst, it sent crude oil into the waterway and onto the lowlands around it.

I spoke with Governor Schweitzer earlier today, and he said he still doesn't know how long the oil was spilling or how much spilled.

Governor BRIAN SCHWEITZER (Democrat, Montana): I can tell you what we've been told chronologically from the beginning from Exxon-Mobil. They told us first that it ruptured at 11:40 and that they got it shut down within six minutes and that it spilled somewhere between 750 and 1,000 barrels into the raging Yellowstone River that was running above flood stage.

But then on further analysis, they said: No, no. Actually, what happened is we started shutting it off in six minutes, and it took us around 30 minutes to turn it off. But it still only spilled 750 to 1,000 barrels. And then upon further analysis and some snoopy reporters, they found out that it actually ran for 56 minutes before they got it completely shut down, but, you guessed it, it still only spilled somewhere between 750 and 1,000 barrels.

I've suggested to Exxon-Mobil if they could go through their math with me, and we can't seem to get any updated information.

NORRIS: Now, Governor Schweitzer, as you know, Exxon is saying that it's hard to ascertain the exact volume of that spill because it's difficult to determine the rate of flow. And some experts have said that that sort of makes sense. This just may actually be a matter of confusion at this point. Do you buy that?

Gov. SCHWEITZER: Well, look, it's their pipeline. But I can tell you this. If they don't know how much oil fits in their pipeline or how much comes out the other side, maybe they're not looking that hard to get the answer. Of course this is complicated, but when you're paying $90 a barrel for oil, I think that you pretty much know how much oil you've got in that pipeline and how much has been delivered and how much is missing.

NORRIS: And what has been their official response thus far?

Gov. SCHWEITZER: Let's see. Let me think about it. Crickets.

NORRIS: Crickets? You mean silence?

Gov. SCHWEITZER: Nothing back.

NORRIS: Hmm.

Gov. SCHWEITZER: I've offered to send a $2 calculator to Houston so that they could show me how it didn't matter whether the pipeline ran for six minutes, 30 minutes or 56 minutes, and how the end result is always 750 to 1,000 barrels.

NORRIS: As I understand an oil spill, time is very important. You have to move in a timely manner. Who at this point is responsible for the cleanup, and why at this point isn't there a more detailed plan?

Gov. SCHWEITZER: Well, ultimately, Exxon-Mobil is responsible for paying for the plan. The EPA is the lead agency in the cleanup, but the State of Montana, of course, is a partner.

Last week, we invited citizens that have been affected to come to a public meeting. And I advised those private landowners that they ought to take some of their own water and soil samples so that some of this evidence wouldn't be lost. And so I actually was criticized by some in the private world. And of course, even the EPA, the day before the meeting, suggested that it may not be a good idea for private citizens to take their own soil samples. So...

NORRIS: Do they have a point there?

Gov. SCHWEITZER: Maybe. But yesterday, I asked my people to report back how many soil samples EPA has collected so far. And as of 5 o'clock yesterday, on the ninth day of the spill, the answer back from EPA was zero. Not a single soil sample has been collected by the EPA.

NORRIS: You yourself were actually encouraging people to do this, and you actually handed out jars. Am I correct?

Gov. SCHWEITZER: Oh, you know, and I'm a soil scientist. And the director of my Department of Environmental Quality, Richard Opper, is also a soil scientist. So I'll be damned if I'm going to allow Exxon-Mobil from Houston, Texas or bureaucrat in Washington D.C. to tell a couple of Montana-trained scientists what we should and shouldn't do to protect the citizens in Montana.

NORRIS: If I were actually to visit the stretch of the river that has been affected by the oil spill, would I see evidence of the oil right now?

Gov. SCHWEITZER: No. If you stood along the bank, what you would see is a big river. And in order to find the oil spill, what you've got to do is you have to fan out across the lowlands. I want you to do a little experiment, folks, in your own home and then I can tell you what happened.

Go to your kitchen and get out a big cookie sheet, you know, those ones where you bake brownies or cookies, and put that on your counter. Then take the biggest bowl you own and put it in the middle of it. Fill that bowl within an inch of the surface with tap water. And then get out some olive oil or some other dark oil that you have and fill the bowl to the brim. Don't spill any yet; that's bank fill. That's when the Yellowstone was just to its bank but not flooding.

But on the night that this pipeline burst, the Yellowstone was over its banks. So now, what I want you to do with this bowl is add another glass of water, pour it from three feet in the air and then take a big spoon and splash it a little bit, and it will now go over the side of the ball. And it will spread evenly as a thin film across that cookie sheet. Leave it alone for a day. The water will evaporate, and what you're left with is a thin film of oil. That's what happened on the Yellowstone River.

NORRIS: And we should say if folks try that at home they might want to don apron.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Gov. SCHWEITZER: Well, don't be as wild as the Yellowstone River. We'll say that.

NORRIS: Brian Schweitzer is the governor of the State of Montana.

Governor Schweitzer, thanks so much for talking to us.

Gov. SCHWEITZER: Thank you very much.

NORRIS: And tomorrow, we'll be joined by the president of Exxon-Mobil Pipeline Company. And we spoke also with the EPA about those soil samples the governor mentioned. We were told the agency is beginning to gather soil samples today.

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