The Billings Outpost

State still looking at Exxon oil spill

HELENA – While the Montana Department of Environmental Quality recently agreed to a $1.6 million settlement with Exxon Mobil for water pollution caused by a pipeline break last summer that contaminated dozens of miles of the Yellowstone River, the oil company may owe even more, under state and federal law, for additional environmental damages, an official with the state’s Natural Resource Damage Program said Monday.

Robert Collins, supervising assistant attorney general for the NRD program, said the state is currently working with the federal government to investigate the oil spill’s impact on fish, birds, turtles and other wildlife and their habitat, as well as lost public uses of the river. The $1.6 million penalty settlement with the Montana DEQ, announced Jan. 19, was for impact to the river water and its banks.

Exxon agreed to pay $300,000 in cash and spend $1.3 million on future environmental projects. The Texas oil company also revealed that approximately 1,509 barrels of oil – or more than 63,000 gallons – spewed into the Yellowstone River as a result of the leak.

“All of the environmental issues are not yet resolved,” Collins said. “The state is currently involved in pre-assessment activities, an investigation to determine if there are significant injuries to Montana’s natural resources due to the oil leak. The results of this investigation will help determine whether to move forward with a claim against Exxon.”

The NRD program, a division of the Montana Department of Justice, is leading the investigation with the federal government and assistance from the Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks. NRD environmental engineers and biologists are investigating, along with a handful of outside consultants.

So far, invoices for approximately $230,000 in NRD investigation costs have been submitted by the state to Exxon for reimbursement. Approximately 60 percent of that is for consultants. In addition, an interagency agreement between the National Pollution Funds Center and the U.S. Department of the Interior has also made almost $500,000 available for this investigation. 

In addition to the experts working on the case, Collins said the state will also rely on sportsmen’s and other groups to help identify the full extent of the damages.

“A lot of the state’s success on this depends on the on-the-ground user groups assisting us in the investigation,” Collins said.

The Natural Resource Damage Program was created in 1990 to prepare the state’s lawsuit against the Atlantic Richfield Co., or ARCO, for injuries to the natural resources in the Upper Clark Fork River Basin caused by decades of mining and mineral processing operations between Butte and Milltown.

The state settled the lawsuit through a series of agreements from 1999 through 2008. As a result, more than $200 million was earmarked from these settlements to restore or replace the injured natural resources.

Collins said he expects a conclusion to the initial investigation in about four months. Any monetary amount gained through a settlement with Exxon would be used to restore natural resources in and around the site of the oil spill near Laurel and Billings.

 

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