That horrifying oil spill on the Yellowstone River in Montana is bad enough. But of course, Exxon/Mobil officials had to go and make it worse by minimizing the damage done to the river and making only the most tepid of cleanup responses:
An oil spill in Montana's Yellowstone River surged toward North Dakota on Sunday as outraged residents demanded more government oversight of Exxon Mobil's cleanup.
An estimated 750 to 1,000 barrels, or up to 42,000 gallons, spilled overnight Friday through a damaged pipeline in the riverbed, Exxon spokesman Alan Jeffers said. The break near Billings could be related to the river's high water level, officials said.
More than 100 people were working on the cleanup late Sunday, Jeffers said. But local officials said that, because of the raging floodwaters, only a handful of crews were laying absorbent pads and booms to trap oil along short stretches of the river between Billings and Laurel. In some areas, residents said, oil may be flowing underneath the booms and continuing downstream in the murky water.
Jeffers said most of the oil was believed to be within 10 miles of the spill site, and Exxon crews were flying over the area late Sunday to assess how far it had spread.
But Montana's governor disputed the estimate.
"Nobody can say definitively," Gov. Brian Schweitzer said. "It's too early. We need boats on the water," not only flyovers. Boats were potentially unsafe because of the high water, however.
Montanans don't let just anyone mess around with their rivers. After all, this is A River Runs Through It country, and every summer the state's blue-ribbon trout streams draw a steady stream of fly fishermen who spend lots of tourist dollars. It's a big moneymaking industry -- maybe bigger than oil in the state.
As the story observes:
Oil was reported as far as 100 miles away near the town of Hysham, Yellowstone County Commissioner Bill Kennedy said.
Although the spill is downstream from Yellowstone National Park and the fertile Yellowstone fly-fishing grounds frequented by tourists, some officials worried about harm to the industry that draws 11 million annual tourists a year to a state with a population of 980,000.
"We take our rivers very seriously here in Montana," said Schweitzer, a soil scientist who planned to visit the spill site Tuesday. "We will not allow this catastrophe to affect the $400 million trout industry in Montana."
UPDATE 7 a.m.: Gov. Brian Schweitzer says statements from ExxonMobil officials that no injured wildlife had been found were premature.
"For somebody to say at this early stage that there's no damage to wildlife, that's pretty silly," Schweitzer told the Associated Press on Saturday. "The Yellowstone River is important to us. We've got to have a physical inspection of that river in small boats — and soon."
The Billings Gazette has published photos of soiled pelicans and turtles. The Environmental Protection Agency said it can't confirm any damage to wildlife or fish kills, but investigators were checking and the federal agency expected to know more Monday.
Here's one of those photos:
The worst part is waiting to see what happens to the trout populations on the Yellowstone and its tributaries. This could get very ugly.