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Montana Oil Spill Revives Pipeline Concerns

Jan 26, 2015

Concerns over the country's aging pipeline system are renewed in light of a large oil spill into Montana's Yellowstone River; a similar spill occurred in the region less than four years ago. Associated Press reports that 40,000 gallons of oil contaminated downstream water supplies in the city of Glendive.

In 2011, an ExxonMobil pipeline broke during flooding on the Yellowstone. The break, which was attributed to scouring of the river bottom that exposed the line to floodwaters, caused 63,000 gallons of oil to spill near Billings.

Now, a decades-old Poplar Pipeline has caused another major spill in the Yellowstone. Associated Press reports that investigators and company officials are trying to figure out what caused it. Sen. Jon Tester (D-Montana) told AP that the incident was preventable, but "we just didn't have the folks on the ground" to stop it; he also said that pipes need to be inspected more often and that older pipelines should be subject to stricter standards of safety.

"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, according to AP.

The spill is especially relevant at present time, when some politicians want the Obama administration to authorize TransCanada's Keystone XL pipeline. The line would go from Canada to the Gulf, and cross the Yellowstone about 20 miles upstream of the recent spill. Republicans and some Democrats, including Tester, want the line approved.

Poplar is owned by Bridger Pipeline, based in Wyoming. The line was built in the 1950s, and the broken section was replaced at least four decades ago.

According to the U.S. Department of Transportation, just over half of the pipelines in the US were installed before 1970. There are about 150 inspectors from the agency's Office of Pipeline Safety to oversee 2.6 million miles of gas, oil and other pipelines. A $27 million budget approved last year could bring that number up by 100.

Dena Hoff is a farmer and rancher whose land is located near the border of the spill. She told AP that Keystone should be reconsidered in light of the spill. "It's the nature of the beast - pipelines leak, and pipelines break. We're never going to get around that," she said to AP. "We have to decide if water is more valuable than oil."

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