Cut Bank Oil Spill Cleanup to Go on for Weeks

By Beacon Staff

HELENA – Crews working by hand in extreme heat and rugged terrain are about a third of the way through the cleanup of a northwestern Montana oil spill, with the work expected to take at least a couple more weeks, the crew chief said Wednesday.

About a dozen people are excavating oil-stained soil and draining spring-fed pools that were contaminated when oil spilled from a broken flow line at an oil field FX Energy Inc. operates. The oil ran nearly a mile down a coulee so steep that crews are unable to use machines to help them with the cleanup.

They are putting the soil into 2,000-pound bags and the oil-slicked water into barrels, and lowering both to staging areas at the bottom of the canyon on the shore of the Cut Bank Creek. Workers have collected eight barrels and eight bags of waste, said Gabe Renville, senior environmental scientist for Indian County Environmental Associates.

The next problem workers must face is how to get it out of the remote corner of the Blackfeet Indian Reservation, he said.

“We’re moving along, but we’ll have some challenges ahead of us as to how to get our contaminated soil out of the canyon,” Renville said.

The site of the cleanup is a high canyon marked by cliffs, switchbacks and waterfalls. Plans are in the works to position a crane at the top of the coulee, attach a long cable to it and drag the barrels and bags up the side. But the landowner and others involved in the cleanup will have to sign off before that plan can move ahead, Renville said.

Draining and mucking out the numerous spring-fed pools contaminated with oil is expected to continue into next week, if the conditions are right, Renville said.

Once the cleanup is completed, remediation begins. Workers will have to restore what they’ve disturbed, such as the staging areas and makeshift road at the bottom of the canyon, Renville said.

“We’ll replace rocks and restore it back to the natural landscaping as much as possible,” he said.

Up to 840 gallons of oil spilled from a broken flow line before the company discovered and patched the break in June. The oil spread nearly a mile down the ravine and into the creek before a neighboring landowner reported it a month later, on July 12.

Officials are unsure how much oil spilled into the creek, which connects with the Marias River and ultimately the Missouri River. It is unclear whether the spill has had any effect on wildlife. Workers have found two dead birds, but they did not know whether that was related.

The Environmental Protection Agency, the lead investigator into the spill, said Tuesday there was no new information into the circumstances surrounding the incident.

The agency has said it is investigating why Salt Lake City-based FX Energy did not report the spill when it happened.

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