Skip to content

Poplar pipeline spill into Yellowstone River signals Energy East threat

Montana pipeline spill
Democracy Now!

People concerned about Energy East – and other proposed pipelines – are taking note of the most recent oil spill in the United States.

The Bridger Pipelines LLC 42,000 barrels per day Poplar pipeline flows from Canada to Baker, Montana. The pipeline, which measures 12-inches in diameter, primarily carries fracked crude from the Bakken shale oil fields in North Dakota and Montana. Yesterday, the pipeline burst and spilled about 1,200 barrels of oil into the Yellowstone River before it was shut down about an hour later. So far, the oil has flowed almost 100 kilometres downstream of the spill site. The 1,114 kilometre river flows through Wyoming, Montana and North Dakota.

The Poplar pipeline is situated about 16 kilometres from Glendive, Montana where it is buried about 8 feet under the river. The 6,000 residents of that community have been advised not to drink their tap water – given tests now show elevated levels of cancer-causing benzene compounds in the water – but to use bottled water instead for drinking and cooking. The town’s water treatment plant operated for 24 hours after the spill and some residents have said they heard about the spill via friends and social media, not through an official announcement.

The efforts to clean-up the spill have been made even more challenging because the river is partially frozen. Paul Peronard, the Environmental Protection Agency’s on-scene coordinator, says, “These are horrible working conditions to try to recover oil. Normally you at least see it, but you can’t see it, you can’t smell it. We’re going to have to hunt and peck through ice to get it out.”

The pipeline was last inspected three years ago, but the Wall Street Journal reports, “Late last year, Bridger Pipeline received a warning letter from the U.S. Department of Transportation’s Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Administration, alleging that the company did not follow proper reporting procedures when it inspected the Poplar pipeline in 2012. The agency did not impose a fine. The company has not filed a response with PHMSA and did not immediately respond to questions about the warning.”

This is the second oil spill into the Yellowstone River in the last four years. In July 2011 an ExxonMobil pipeline broke near Laurel, Montana (about 380 kilometres southwest of Glendive) and spilled about 1,500 barrels of oil into the river washing up onshore as far as about 137 kilometres from the spill site. ExxonMobil faces fines for that incident and claims to have spent $135 million on that cleanup effort.

The Environmental Protection Agency says that 14,000 oil spills are reported each year in the United States. In 2013, an Enbridge pipeline spilled about 20,000 barrels of oil over a 17 hour period into a tributary of the Kalamazoo River in Michigan. That spill – which contaminated almost 60 kilometres of the river – has been the largest inland spill in the U.S. to date. Journalist Andrew Nikiforuk has noted there have been approximately 29,000 oil pipeline spills in Alberta over the past 37 years.

The Council of Canadians has argued that the TransCanada Energy East pipeline could spill more than one million litres (about 5,000 barrels) of oil into a waterway in just 10 minutes. In total, the pipeline would cross at least 90 watersheds and 961 waterways along its route. For more on this threat, please see our report Energy East: Where Oil Meets Water. To watch a 14-minute video by the Council of Canadians with engineer Evan Vokes that questions TransCanada’s ability to safely build and maintain pipelines, please click here.