On July 1, 2011, a 12-inch diameter pipeline owned by the ExxonMobil Pipeline Company ruptured near Laurel, Montana, resulting in the discharge of approximately 63,000 gallons of crude oil into the Yellowstone River and floodplain. This occurred at the peak of an extended high water event which is estimated to occur only once every 35 years. The Yellowstone River Oil Spill affected the Yellowstone River and its floodplain for approximately 85 miles downstream.
Response activities were initiated soon after the oil spill. The United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) led the response, which was undertaken by the ExxonMobil Pipeline Company, in coordination with the State of Montana and other federal agencies. Response activities involved over 1,000 personnel engaged in cleanup and shoreline assessment of approximately 11,000 acres along 85 miles. In September 2011, EPA demobilized from the site, and the site has now transitioned from emergency cleanup into long-term monitoring, assessment and reclamation, under the direction of the Montana Department of Environmental Quality. It is estimated that little of the estimated 63,000 gallons of oil discharged into the Yellowstone River and floodplain was recovered.
Oil from the Yellowstone River Oil Spill, along with the cleanup activities themselves, harmed natural resources and the natural resource services provided, including but not limited to, fish and other aquatic organisms, birds (including migratory birds), wildlife, large woody debris piles, aquatic habitat, terrestrial habitat, and the services provided by these natural resources. These public natural resources are under the jurisdiction of the State of Montana and the United States. These governments are using the Natural Resource Damage Assessment and Restoration process to evaluate and document the amount of harm caused by the Yellowstone River Oil Spill, and will seek compensation from the Responsible Party, the ExxonMobil Pipeline Company, to restore natural resources harmed by the oil spill.
NATURAL RESOURCE DAMAGE ASSESSMENT AND RESTORATION
Natural Resource Damage Assessment and Restoration (NRDAR) is the process used by governments to seek compensation for natural resources injured or destroyed due to oil or other hazardous substances. In the NRDAR process, the appropriate governmental entities are identified as “Trustees.” Compensation sought through the process is used by the Trustees to restore, rehabilitate, replace, or acquire the equivalent of injured natural resources and services to pre-spill conditions. Compensation is sought from the party responsible for the damage, in this case, the Exxon Mobil Pipeline Company.
For the Yellowstone River Oil Spill, the State Trustee is the Governor of the State of Montana. The federal Trustee is the United States Department of the Interior, as represented by the Bureau of Land Management and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. The U.S. Bureau of Land Management and the State of Montana are Co-Lead Administrative Trustees.
DAMAGE ASSESSMENT AND PUBLIC INVOLVEMENT
The Trustees began data collection to understand the Yellowstone River Oil Spill’s impact on natural resources when flows dropped sufficiently to allow government staff safe access. Since that time, the Trustees have reviewed data collected during the response action, as well as gathered data and information to date on such things as soil, water, sediments, large woody debris piles, fish, birds, wildlife, and their habitats, recreational use and closures.
Some NRDAR data was collected cooperatively between the Trustees and ExxonMobil Pipeline Company. As required by law, the Trustees invited the Responsible Party, the ExxonMobil Pipeline Company, to participate in the natural resource damage assessment, although Responsible Party involvement remains in the sole discretion of the Trustees, should the Trustees view the company’s participation as causing interference with the Trustees’ ability to fulfill their Trustee responsibilities.
The Trustees have decided to conduct Restoration Planning to assess damages and restore the resources. Collection and review of data will continue as Trustees work to further identify and quantify the Yellowstone River Oil Spill’s impacts, as part of the injury assessment. The Trustees will also begin restoration alternative evaluation, identifying projects that benefit the same or similar resources injured by the oil spill. The public will have the opportunity for review and comment on the draft assessment and restoration plan. Other opportunities for public involvement may occur prior to that time if the Trustees see that such involvement could enhance Trustees’ decision-making or avoid delays in restoration.
MAJOR CATEGORIES OF NATURAL RESOURCE INJURY
The full nature and extent of injuries will be determined during the injury assessment phase of restoration planning. As part of its preassessment activities, the Trustees identified a number of categories where injuries have resulted, or are likely to result from the Incident. These categories include, but not limited to:
- Fish, reptiles, and amphibians: Natural resources have been and may continue to be lost, injured and/or threatened as a result of discharged oil, including, without limitation, injury to fish and fish habitat, including, but not limited to, gill abnormalities and external lesions and ulcers on surviving fish. Other receptors and their habitats were also potentially exposed and injured, including but not limited to: reptiles (including turtles) and amphibians (including frogs).
- Birds: Natural resources have been and continue to be lost, injured and/or threatened as a result of discharged oil and associated response activities, including, without limitation, injury to birds, including the American White Pelican, a State species of concern, owls and other cavity nesting birds, and bird habitat. Other receptors also potentially lost, injured and/or threatened, along with their habitat, include but are not limited to: passerine birds, waterfowl, shorebirds, and raptors.
- Floodplain habitat: Natural resources have been and continue to be lost, injured and/or threatened as a result of discharged oil and associated response activities, including, without limitation, injury to both bottomland/riparian lands, and grassland/shrubland. For example, on significant acreage, oil was allowed to degrade over time. Where response actions were taken, adverse effects occurred and continue to occur, for example, the use of heavy equipment (e.g., all-terrain vehicles, skid steers, excavators), and the building of staging grounds, footpaths, temporary roads, and vehicle tracks.
- Large Woody Debris Piles: One of the Yellowstone River’s distinguishing attributes as the longest undammed river in the lower 48 states is the existence of large woody debris piles. Large woody debris piles play an important role in channel morphological processes and aquatic and riparian habitat formation, including cottonwood tree regeneration. Natural resources have been and continue to be lost, injured and/or threatened as a result of discharged oil and associated response activities, including, without limitation, injury to large woody debris piles and cottonwood tree regeneration.
- Human use: Natural resource services have been and continue to be lost, injured and/or threatened as a result of discharged oil and associated response activities. These may include, without limitation, diminished and/or lost use and non-use values, including but not limited to fishing and other recreational uses. For example, fishing and other recreational uses were prohibited, curtailed, or otherwise adversely affected, either directly or indirectly, at parks, fishing access sites, Bureau of Land Management property, and on or adjacent to the Yellowstone River.
LINKS AND DOCUMENTS
- Notice of Intent to Conduct Restoration Planning
- October 31, 2013 Press Release
- October 31, 2013 Public Notice
- Yellowstone River Oil Spill Administrative Record for Restoration Planning
- Oil Pollution Act regulations
- Yellowstone River Oil Spill Trustee NRDAR data (subject to revision and augmentation during NRDAR)
- DEQ Yellowstone River Oil Spill cleanup website