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Ruptured Pipeline Pumps Tens of Thousands of Gallons of Shale Oil Along Yellowstone River

Residents in eastern Montana worry about contamination after "unknown amount" of Bakken crude enters water supply

View of the crude oil that spill in and near the Yellowstone River. (Photo: Larry Mayer/Billings Gazette)

A pipeline rupture in Eastern Montana on Saturday, which spilled up to 50,000 gallons of Bakken shale crude oil into the Yellowstone River, has local residents worried that their water supplies may now be contaminated.

"I am not saying the water is unsafe. I am not saying it is safe." —Mary Jo Gehnert, Dawson County Disaster and Emergency Services coordinator 

According to a statement (pdf) released by Bridger Pipeline Co., which operates the Poplar Pipeline, the breach occurred approximately nine miles upstream from Glendive, Montana. The company claims that no more than 1,200 barrels, or 50,000 gallons, of crude oil were released and stated that an "unknown amount of that total has spilled into the Yellowstone River." It was not immediately clear whether their estimates have been independently verified.

Montana officials claimed on Sunday that they were not immediately aware of any health or environmental harm from the spill, according to media reports. However, officials with Dawson County Disaster and Emergency Services released a statement Monday which says that "on Sunday, January 18th, Dawson County began receiving some complaints of odor in drinking water from people who use the municipal water supply."

Following those reports, the local officials ordered the collection of samples from the municipal drinking water supply and announced teams were being dispatched to "monitor taps along Glendive's water distribution system."

The Montana Standard reports that clean-up crews have been hampered so far by cold weather and ice along the river and spoke with local residents now without water:

Glendive resident Carrie Flynn Keiser said she could smell and taste oil in her drinking water Sunday.

“We heard about it about an hour before we tasted it (in) the water,” she said.

Keiser, who lives at 600 Snyder Ave., said she was alerted to the spill because her mother in-law saw a friend’s Facebook post about the spill.


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Her in-laws across town also are reporting an oily smell and taste in their water.

The mother of five said she does not want her children, the three children she takes care of, her husband or pets to drink the tainted water, she said. The home is are relying on a small storage tank in their basement. When that runs out, they'll buy bottled water, Keiser said.

Monday morning, Keiser was still waiting for authorities to explain what was going on with her water.

There were third-party reports that impacts to drinking water are minimal, but Keiser said she wasn't sure. “There’s a big impact. The water’s not drinkable at all.”

According to local KRTV News, Dawson County Disaster and Emergency Services coordinator Mary Jo Gehnert said, "I am not saying the water is unsafe. I am not saying it is safe. We are waiting for officials to arrive who can make that decision."

As of Monday, crews continued to evaluate and attempt to clean up the disaster—the full extent of which remains unknown.

The Poplar Pipeline, which transports crude from the Bakken oil region in Montana and North Dakota, remained closed on Monday. Critics have long warned that the extraction of oil from the Bakken Shale poses numerous threats to environmental and human health, from greenhouse gas emissions to pipeline spills.

This is not the first time the Yellowstone River has faced a major oil spill. In July 2011, a breach of an ExxonMobil Corp. pipeline near Laurel, Montana unleashed at least 63,000 gallons of oil into the same river. State and federal officials are still seeking millions of dollars in damages from Exxon, including resources to conduct studies on the long-term impact of the environmental disaster.

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