State Panel Calls for Pipeline Safety Improvements

By Beacon Staff

BILLINGS – A state panel created to help prevent a repeat of last year’s oil spill into the Yellowstone River is calling for pipeline technology upgrades by companies and more money for government inspectors.

Those recommendations are in a report due for release Tuesday by the governor-appointed Pipeline Safety Review Council.

But none of the panel’s recommendations is binding — and most fall outside state government jurisdiction, council chairman Richard Opper said.

Gov. Brian Schweitzer formed the council in the wake of a 1,500-barrel crude oil spill last July from an Exxon Mobil pipeline near Laurel. An estimated 70 miles of the Yellowstone’s riverbank were contaminated.

The spill came after local officials had repeatedly warned the pipeline was at risk. It was one of several major accidents in recent years that underscored lax government oversight of the nation’s sprawling pipeline system.

Federal inspectors working with the state later found dozens of river crossings in Montana and northern Wyoming where erosion had left pipelines exposed to hazards. Companies including Exxon Mobil, CHS and Conoco Phillips spent tens of millions of dollars on improvements and other work on at least 18 crossings.

Opper said that put the state in a much safer position than prior to the Exxon spill, which came during record spring flooding across Montana.

A computerized mapping system set up by state and federal officials since the spill will also help, Opper said. He said the mapping system will give state and local officials instant access to the specifics of pipelines should accidents occur.

Yet any broad improvements to the pipeline system will have to come from federal regulations or pipeline operators themselves, Opper said.

“One of the things we’ve done is learn how little jurisdiction the state has over pipeline safety,” Opper said. “We certainly encourage companies to stay abreast of new technologies that will help them to their job.”

One landowner whose property was contaminated in the Exxon Mobil spill said she was disappointed with the council’s recommendations.

Alexis Bonogofsky, who runs a goat ranch along the river near Billings and works for the National Wildlife Federation, said the panel was “going out with a sputter” after months of work by state agencies.

“I’m shocked that this is what they’re releasing after a year of what seemed to be an in-depth analysis of the problem,” she said. “These recommendations don’t mean anything.”

Montana has 6,700 miles of natural gas transmission, oil and other hazardous liquid pipelines. The state averages about six or seven serious accidents on those lines annually.

The Exxon spill caused more property damage than all other accidents over the last decade combined.

Investigators suspect river scouring caused by flooding on the Yellowstone was responsible, although a final cause has not been determined. The line was buried only a few feet beneath the riverbed when it was installed in 1991.

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