I live in an oil-state, Louisiana. Our beaches are brown with the stuff these days. This is an emotional place, the trees hang low, the crickets say good-bye to the dusk-lit hour with a vibrato that would make most grown men cry.
Hurricane Katrina ravaged everything. It was consummate destruction. We watched as the fine and elegant story of our city, with so much pain and passion, love and struggle, came to a screeching, sinking halt.
Covered in the worst kind of mud-tar, ash and death, we withstood the event that swallowed and inundated our lives, but we survived. We waded in, rebuilt, celebrated, and wept. On April 20, 2010, we wept again. This time our entire coast, flat and outstretched from Louisiana to Mississippi, Alabama, and Florida became the victim of the worst Oil Spill in history.
Montana has lured me in through a golden light of summer, to survive a winter and let me out to see real spring. There’s never been a place in my life more majestic, natural and beautiful than this land. It is place with heart. It defies the limits of the mind with an openness of sky that lifts the spirit to dream and wonder and to love.
Although I now live again in New Orleans, not a week goes by that I do not dream of traversing Montana’s valleys, watching as the shadows engulf the forests. It’s a place that understands survival and community. There is a simple cultural precept: work hard, enjoy life. The people of Montana are not “forgotten America,” they strive to build, cultivating their land, and using their resources adequately.
On the night of July 1 the people of Laurel, Montana were gearing up to prepare their 58th annual July Fourth Celebration, a weekend of fun culminating with a grand Fireworks Display. The Red Cross was also setup in theregion along the river for record flood levels. Many residents were evacuating to shelters and leaving behind their homes for the rising waters raging forth. The Laurel City Fire Chief was working double-time to ensure public safety, monitor the river, and even convince people to leave their homes—some escaping in the middle of the night. It was on this night at 10:41 p.m. that the Silvertip Pipeline, owned by Exxon Mobil Pipeline Co. ruptured, causing anywhere from 750 to 1,000 barrels of crude oil to flow into the Yellowstone River.
It took Exxon Mobil from the time of the pressure drop at 10:41 p.m., until the last valve was closed at 11:36 p.m. to stop the flow of oil flowing into the Yellowstone. During that time, people were evacuated to a temporary shelter managed by the Red Cross as a precautionary measure. Exxon Mobil has identified the general location of the rupture, but river levels remain too high to pinpoint the cause. This Silvertip Crude Oil Pipeline originates in the Wyoming-Montana border and delivers 60,000 barrels of oil per day to Exxon’s Billings refinery, adjacent to Yellowstone
The U.S. Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration has cited ExxonMobil with warning letters of “possible” problems with their pipeline operation in 2006 and 2009, which they addressed, resuming operations. In May of this year they were asked to cease operations for fear of the Yellowstone River reaching flood levels.
Deciding it was of low-risk, ExxonMobil resumed operations. There are currently three pipelines in this area including the Silvertip. Cenex also operates a pipeline for their Laurel refinery, as well as a now-defunct Conoco Phillips pipeline no longer in use.
According to wildlife agencies, including Montana Fish, Wildlife, and Parks there are areas to observe the spill that cannot be accessed because of the critical stage of flooding, making the observation of plumes in back waters and ditches difficult throughout the back-fed areas as well as beneath the water’s surface.
There is the question of impact crude oil will have on the sensitive bed of the river that contains insects and micro-organisms, as well as back water tributaries containing delicate fish and insect cultures and aquatic birds.
There is an immense cleanup effort underway, guided by the State of Montana, DEQ, EPA, and
ExxonMobil. For hundreds of miles downriver there is Municipal Water testing and evaluation underway to determine water safety for treatment facilities along the river. Montanans now sit back and wait for guidance from Federal, State, and Local Authorities as they wonder about the impact that this will have on the future of the Yellowstone River ecology.
These are their farmlands, tribal lands, river estates, swimming holes, irrigation canals, and fishing tributaries.
Having seen the way these things go, I watch again in terror as one of this country’s most beautiful natural resources comes under assault by the adequacies of man’s invention.
I know that many people must be asking, was this avoidable, why? How could this happen?
I’ve been asking myself these questions as I struggle to rebuild my life from a decade of
disaster in Louisiana. We have to sit back and watch what we’ve created as it spoils the indescribable beauty of what has always been here for us: the river feeding and supporting our families, nourishing our crops and our lands, refreshing us on hot summer days, inspiring us to work hard, living honestly and proud.
It may have never been expressed better : “A River Runs Through It,” and it will continue to run clear and strong with our support. I implore you: protect the Yellowstone River, hold oil and gas companies responsible for their actions, communicate your concerns and demands for this region, educate yourself on policies and protocol that affect these industries, as well as the health and safety of your communities.
There is so much at stake that will be lost without your input. I pray for the people of Montana, the wildlife, and this river of my heart.