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Montana Oil Spill Raises Concerns about Aging Pipeline Network

Jan 26, 2015

A January 17 oil spill into the Yellowstone River, the second large oil spill in less than four years, has revived questions about oversight of the nation's aging pipeline network.

Federal investigators and company officials were trying to determine the cause of the 40,000-gallon spill, which contaminated downstream water supplies in the city of Glendive, Montana, The Associated Press (AP) reports.

Sen. Jon Tester told the AP that more frequent inspections and stricter safety guidelines are needed for older pipelines. "We need to take a look at some of these pipelines that have been in the ground for half a century and say, 'Are they still doing a good job?'" Tester said. The Republican-led Congress, with some support from Democrats, is pressing the Obama administration to approve Keystone XL pipeline from Canada to the Gulf of Mexico. Keystone would cross the Yellowstone about 20 miles upstream of the Poplar Pipeline spill, according to the AP.

In 2011, an ExxonMobil pipeline break spilled 63,000 gallons of oil near Billings, Montana. That break was blamed on scouring of the river bottom that exposed the company's pipeline to floodwaters. Officials involved in the Poplar Pipeline spill have said it is too soon to say if the cause of this spill is the same. Poplar was constructed in the 1950s and the section that was breached was replaced in the late 1960s or early 1970s, according to the company. According to the U.S. Department of Transportation, slightly more than half the pipelines that carry oil, gas, and other liquids were installed prior to 1970. Roughly 150 inspectors oversee 2.6 million miles of pipelines, the AP reports. Even if an additional 100 inspectors are added under a $27 million budget increase approved in 2014, the number of inspectors would still be low in relation to the total miles of pipelines.

Authorities are working to clean up Glendive's public water supply after cancer-causing benzene was detected in water coming from the city's treatment plant, which draws directly from the Yellowstone. Free-floating oil has been seen at an intake dam about 28 miles from the spill site, the AP reports. The director of the Montana Department of Environmental Quality said he was concerned that when the ice breaks up in the spring, oil will spread farther downstream.

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