BILLINGS, Mont. – Boaters were warned to stay off an oil-fouled stretch of Montana's popular Yellowstone River on Friday, as lawmakers on Capitol Hill pressed regulators to bolster the country's pipeline safety rules following a string of high-profile spills and explosions.
The warning to stay off a 22-mile stretch of the Yellowstone between Laurel and Lockwood follows an Exxon Mobil pipeline failure that spewed an estimated 1,000 barrels of crude into the flooding river on July 1.
More than 500 workers are trying to scrub dozens of miles of fouled shoreline and backwaters along the river. With at least 40 boats being used as part of the cleanup, state officials said people recreating on the river in canoes, kayaks, drift boats or innertubes could pose a safety risk.
The cause of the spill remains under investigation, but early indications emerged Friday that the pipeline was completely severed in the accident, said Richard Opper, director of Montana Department of Environmental Quality.
Opper said that suggests the pipeline was undercut by the river and broke, rather than springing a leak due to corrosion in the line.
Exxon Mobil spokeswoman Karen Matusic said the company did not want to speculate about what happened until it could more closely inspect the line.
At a pipeline safety hearing in Washington, D.C., lawmakers questioned the government's top pipeline regulator and asked whether her agency had been overly cozy with the industry.
Cynthia Quarterman, administrator of the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration, told members of a congressional committee that public safety was her agency's highest concern. She added that reform proposals pending before Congress could give the government the authority it needs to prevent future accidents.
"Having spent time with the employees within the agency, I know they may have concerns about upper-level leadership but in terms of their commitment to the mission, it is the highest thing on their mind," Quarterman testified at the hearing. "To a person, their concern is the safety of the public."
Committee members also quizzed Quarterman and other panelists about a Pacific Gas & Electric Co. natural gas pipeline explosion last September in San Bruno, Calif., that killed eight people, injured many more and left 38 homes in smoking ruins.
Also mentioned was the rupture of an Enbridge Inc. pipeline in July of last year in southwest Michigan, which spilled more than 800,000 gallons of oil into the Kalamazoo River.
"The industry has been driving policy," said U.S. Rep. Jackie Speier, a California Democrat whose district includes San Bruno. "We've got to make it safe for the consumers, for the ratepayers."
Michigan Republican Rep. Fred Upton, who chairs the Committee on Energy and Commerce, compiled a large list of witnesses including several members of the oil and gas industry. Testimony from Exxon Mobil Pipeline Co. was postponed for a second hearing next Thursday.
Quarterman said the Montana accident has focused her agency's attention on preventing pipeline failures.
It will likely be August or September before water levels in the river are low enough to exhume the section of damaged pipe responsible for the spill, Quarterman said in another hearing on Thursday.
It could take another two months after that before investigators identify a cause, and Quarterman said her agency won't know for certain how large the leak was until it examines records at the company's control room in Houston.
Montana Gov. Brian Schweitzer said Friday that he had been frustrated in his attempts to find out from the company the toxicity of the spilled oil. The Democrat had requested a breakdown of what was in the oil last week.
"Show me the analysis," he said. "We've got two weeks of people out there with paper towels and booms, and they can't tell us what's in it."
Exxon Mobil said in a Friday letter to Schweitzer it still was investigating the oil's toxicity.
Montana DEQ director Opper said the determination that the line was severed came after Exxon Mobil attempted to run an electrical current along the pipeline to see if it was still at least partially intact.
The current was not detected on the far side of the river, he said, indicating a complete break.
"It was a complete break in the line. It's not a leak," he said.
Company spokeswoman Matusic confirmed the test was done but said more information was needed to determine what happened to the pipe.
Beginning this weekend, Exxon Mobil plans to drain any oil trapped in the broken line beneath the river using vacuum trucks.
The company has said the failed section was buried at least five feet beneath the riverbed as recently as December. Plans to replace the pipeline would put it about 30 feet beneath the riverbed to prevent another accident.
Although some boat launches on the river have been closed to serve as cleanup staging areas, the river has not been officially closed to boat traffic.
That means anyone who ignores the warning to stay off the river and decides to float the oiled section will not be ticketed, said Bob Gibson with Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks.
Gibson added that closures are possible in the future.
Tests on river water samples have shown no cause for health concerns among people who go in the water, said Environmental Protection Agency spokesman Matthew Allen.
Nevertheless, officials have advised people to avoid contact with any pockets of crude that they encounter in the water or onshore.
Burke reported from San Francisco.
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