Exxon Mobil Discusses Mont. Oil Spill

Montana state officials are accusing oil giant Exxon Mobil of not being transparent or forthright on the oil spill that has fouled the state's Yellowstone River. Michele Norris speaks with Gary Pruessing, the president of ExxonMobil Pipeline Co., about those accusations, the spill and his company's reaction.

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MICHELE NORRIS, host:

Yesterday, we heard from the Democratic governor of Montana, Brian Schweitzer about an oil spill in his state. A little less than two weeks ago, an Exxon Mobil pipeline burst underneath the Yellowstone River. Exxon has estimated that as much as a thousand barrels of oil spilled into the flooded river before the pipe was shut off. The company, the EPA, and the state of Montana are now involved in a clean-up effort.

When we spoke to Governor Schweitzer, he expressed his displeasure with both Exxon and the EPA. But he was particularly angry - you might even say irate -with the oil company. Among other things, he accused Exxon Mobil of misleading the public about the spill.

Today, we have the president of the Exxon Mobil Pipeline Company. His name is Gary Pruessing. And he's visiting Washington and he's made time for us. Thanks so much for being with us.

Mr. GARY PRUESSING (President, Exxon Mobil Pipeline Company): Thank you, Michele.

NORRIS: Now, yesterday, as we said, we heard strong words from Governor Schweitzer. One of his main complaints is that the day after the spill, you said that Exxon Mobil had, quote, "shut down the whole line within six minutes." That's an exact quote.

Since then, your company has said the oil was still spilling for nearly an hour. What do you say to those charges that you've misled the state of Montana?

Mr. PRUESSING: Michele, first of all, let me begin by saying that Exxon Mobil Pipeline Company sincerely regrets this incident. We apologize to everyone in the state of Montana, and everyone who uses the Yellowstone River. And I want to reaffirm that we are committed to the complete cleanup and we'll be there until the job is done.

I appreciate your question about what the actual response was because there has been apparently some confusion about this. So I'd like to clarify that.

Sometime around 10:40 Mountain Time, we did have a pressure anomaly occur on our pipeline. So they shut down the pumps. That occurred at 10:47 Mountain Time. That is the same day that we have shared with the regulators, right from day one. After that we proceeded to try to isolate the rest of the pipeline.

You know, shutting down a pipeline is not like just turning off your faucet at your kitchen sink. There is a large volume of material on the line moving at a high rate of speed. And so there is a complex process to go about shutting down and isolating various segments of the line, till the point where everything was completely stopped on the line. We actually completed that process at 11:36.

So, again, I would reaffirm that the pipeline was shut down. The pumps were shut down within that seven minute timeframe, and then the complete isolation took the next 49 minutes.

NORRIS: So you're saying there's a difference between the shutdown and the complete isolation. One of the things that we heard from Governor Schweitzer yesterday was frustration in terms of trying to get information from the company.

And let's just take a listen to a portion of that conversation because I'd like you to respond to that if you could.

Governor BRIAN SCHWEITZER (Democrat, Montana): Well, look, it's their pipeline. But I can tell you this, if they don't know how much oil fits in their pipeline nor how much come out the other side, maybe they're not looking that hard to get the answer.

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

Gov. SCHWEITZER: Let's see, let me think about it, crickets.

NORRIS: So, Mr. Pruessing, you hear their frustration that he's not getting clear information from the company.

Mr. PRUESSING: Well, first of all, Michele, we have tried to regularly communicate with the governor. The first several days after the event, a senior official from Exxon Mobil talked to the governor personally three or four times. We actually had a briefing with him on Tuesday of last week, there in Billings. And since that time, we have again tried to contact him three of four times and have just not been able to connect with him.

NORRIS: And as to his question, how much oil has been released? Do you know that?

Mr. PRUESSING: Well specific to the spill volume, again, I would like to reinforce that the data that we provided to the press and to the governor at that time is consistent with the data that we've shared with the pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration at DOT from day one.

NORRIS: And so, in terms of volume, how much oil was put into the river?

Mr. PRUESSING: And again, we have estimated that number is between 750 and 1,000 barrels.

NORRIS: Had this pipe had any problems that had been reported?

Mr. PRUESSING: Once again, all the data that we had from an integrity standpoint indicated this line was safe.

NORRIS: Had it been suggested that the pipeline be shut down or that the flow rate be reduced because of the swollen river, because of the extreme snow melt this year?

Mr. PRUESSING: As the river water started to rise, the city of Laurel was very concerned about erosion of one of the banks along the river. So they came to us and talked with us about the safety of the line and particularly erosion of the bank. To make sure that we were being conservative, we actually shut down the pipeline for a day and concluded after that that we had a safe pipeline to operate.

NORRIS: And so, you reopened the line, you restarted the line after risk assessment. Just for the benefit of our listeners, how far is Laurel from the site of the rupture?

Mr. PRUESSING: The city of Laurel is right near the rupture point.

NORRIS: Now, I know the investigation is still ongoing, but since Laurel is so close to the site of the rupture, is there a suggestion or a possibility that the risk assessment may have reached an improper or incorrect conclusion?

Mr. PRUESSING: Well, certainly we will have to wait until the conclusion of the investigation before we can answer that question.

NORRIS: Gary Pruessing is the president of the Exxon Mobil Pipeline Company. Mr. Pruessing, thank you very much for making time for us.

Mr. PRUESSING: Thank you, Michele.

NORRIS: And Mr. Pruessing will be testifying on Capitol Hill tomorrow about the Yellowstone River spill and pipeline safety in general. After that, he says, he'll return to Montana to help coordinate the clean up.

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