Ice Hampers Cleanup in Yellowstone's Rare Winter Oil Spill

The effort offers cautionary tales for the proposed Keystone XL pipeline and for Arctic drilling.

GLENDIVE, Montana—On a muddy bluff overlooking the Yellowstone River, Paul Peronard watched as workers tried to mop up oil through holes drilled into the frozen surface. Nearby, a whirring vacuum truck held crude from the first serious U.S. spill into icy water in a quarter-century.

The week had begun sunny and unseasonably mild. Peronard, the Environmental Protection Agency's on-scene coordinator, asked for an update. The response: Ice was melting upstream, adding to the cleanup's danger.

"Oh," Peronard winced. "Don't tell me that."

The Poplar pipeline's 31,000-gallon spill on January 17, about nine miles south of here, is a rare test of the capacity to respond to oil accidents in frozen water. Its cleanup progresses as the U.S. Senate voted Thursday to approve the pending Keystone XL project, which would cross the same river about 20 miles upstream, carrying almost 20 times as much crude. (See related story: "Oil Spills Into Yellowstone River, Possibly Polluting Drinking Water.")

Booming North American oil production has brought Keystone and other controversial energy decisions before President Obama's administration. This week, Obama proposed to open the Atlantic to offshore drilling while protecting parts of the Arctic, another frosty region sought after by energy companies. (See related stories: "Could Drilling in the Atlantic Harm Fish, Whales, Turtles?" and "What's Behind U.S. Plan to Open Atlantic to Offshore Drilling?")

Most of the tactics used in the cleanup near Glendive aren't new; they've been honed from previous spills in varying climates. The past two weeks, however, have confirmed that crude oil retains a considerable capacity to produce unsettling surprises and mystery when it enters a frigid waterway.

Racing the Sun

From the beginning, icy conditions on the Yellowstone seriously hindered efforts to find and contain the oil. The warm-up to temperatures above 50°F (10°C) earlier this week made for increasingly treacherous conditions.

On Monday, the river breeze carried no trace of petroleum odor; most of the oil had likely gone downstream, with uncertain impacts. So far, crews have managed to recover about 1,700 gallons from the river—5 percent of the total estimated spill.

Each morning, authorities have had to determine whether the ice was solid enough for crews to work safely. Alberta, Canada-based SWAT Consulting, which was brought in by pipeline operator Bridger for its cold-weather cleanup expertise, has been drilling holes into about two and a half feet of ice, mopping and vacuuming whatever crude rises to the surface.

The 12-inch-diameter Poplar pipeline was carrying light crude from the Bakken shale of nearby North Dakota. Investigators don't yet know what caused its breach: Yellowstone's water is so turbid that a robot and GoPro cameras lowered beneath the surface did not yield much information.

The murky underwater imagery "reminded me of my granddaughter's ultrasound," said Bill Salvin, spokesperson for Casper, Wyoming-based Bridger. "I can't tell you what I was looking at."

Investigators do know that the pipeline, which by law must be buried at least four feet beneath the riverbed and was checked in 2011, somehow became exposed. Sensors planted along the pipeline alerted a control center in Casper to a drop in pressure on the line, and Bridger shut it down about an hour later.

The company was able to cut off the damaged section and extract about 20,500 gallons before it got into the river, but the crude that escaped moved fast under the ice. By the time responders were able to locate collection points downstream, drill through the ice, and place barriers, there wasn't much oil left to trap.

Unexpected Trouble in Town

"There's good and bad there," Peronard said of winter's lock on the river at the time of the breach. "If the water had been open, we would have been able to see [the oil] and find it faster, which would have helped." On the good side, the ice did slow the oil down, and seems to have kept it away from the banks, where it is "a royal pain" to clean up, he said.

The ice also delivered a separate curve ball.

"None of us anticipated the drinking water problem," said Peronard, a 30-year veteran of the EPA who estimates he's worked to clean up about 200 spills. Though Glendive depended on the river for drinking water, its intake pipe at the treatment plant sat well below where anyone expected the oil to float.

"As soon as they told me the intake was 14 feet below the water surface, I wasn't worried about the water intake," he said. "Turned out to be wrong about that."

None of us anticipated the drinking water problem.

The town's treatment plant had been advised to inspect its intake system for any visual or olfactory sign of oil: Nothing seemed out of the ordinary. It wasn't until calls started coming in the day after the spill that authorities knew there was a problem.

Residents in this town of about 5,000 reported tap water that smelled like diesel and tasted funny. Testing confirmed unsafe levels of volatile organic compounds (VOCs) such as benzene and toluene, chemicals that are especially prevalent in Bakken crude.

Because of runoff from nearby agriculture, Glendive chlorinates its water heavily. That made it more difficult to detect new smells, Peronard said: "What you smelled in that plant was chlorine. It turns out you smell a lot more chlorine than you do benzene."

People were advised not to use the tap water for drinking or cooking, and had to rely on trucked-in bottled water for three days before the system was cleared.

In open water, those VOCs would have evaporated pretty quickly, Peronard said. Instead, the freeze trapped them below the surface, while the river's murky current—made even more turbulent by rough ice—shook them into the water like vinaigrette. He'd never seen anything like the Poplar plume, he said.

Authorities in Sidney, Montana, and Williston, North Dakota, downstream of the spill were put on alert, but did not report any notable effects on the water supply.

Some in Glendive took the incident in stride. "I drink bottled water at home anyway," said one hotel clerk. On the town's main drag, bounded by a parked coal train at the railway on one side of the street and a strip containing a pawn shop on the other, a bartender at the Beer Jug was similarly unfazed.

"People joke, 'Don't drink the water, because animals die in the Yellowstone River,'" said Toriana Zander. She added that most of her high school peers had gone to work at drilling rigs and "get covered in oil every day," suggesting that a blip in the water supply was no big deal. Officials at Montana's Department of Environmental Quality said they stopped getting calls about the water this week.

Collecting Lessons

The Poplar spill is strikingly unique. Of the 20 pipeline accidents at water crossings between 1991 and 2012 chronicled in a report from the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration, none involved a spill of crude up north in winter. Yet the same report noted that "hazardous liquid pipelines cross inland bodies of water at 18,136 locations."

The amount of oil that spilled is about half that of the July 2011 Exxon Silvertip pipeline, which happened some 230 miles southwest of Glendive.

Montana applied lessons from that incident here. Officials said establishing a command center that brought pipeline operator Bridger together with federal, state, and municipal authorities significantly expedited the response, particularly in terms of getting the drinking water restored.

Still, some precautions didn't help much. The state had pre-identified response points for a future spill after Silvertip happened, Peronard said—but under the assumption of open water.

Scientists who want to study how oil behaves in icy water are mostly confined to the lab, by necessity. To simulate spills, the U.S. government has a facility in New Jersey that has performed research aimed partly at preparing for Arctic oil development. Real-world learning opportunities are rare.

The spill is awful, but a wonderful opportunity to learn so many things that we don't understand.

"It's hard to get permits so that controlled types of releases can be studied at a scale that's similar to this," said Martha Grabowski, a researcher who co-authored a National Academy of Sciences report on U.S. Arctic spill readiness last year. She said the Poplar spill is "awful, but a wonderful opportunity to learn so many things that we don't understand and that will be important at a larger scale."

Even so, every oil accident has its own calculus, based on the type of oil, the current, the waterway characteristics, and other factors. In Glendive, according to Chad Anderson of the Montana Department of Environmental Quality, officials were considering the purchase of a $25,000 system to test regularly for VOCs in drinking water. For authorities at the state and federal level, part of the Poplar spill's aftermath will involve evaluating what precautions can be applied beyond the town.

In the meantime, responders in Montana must decide how long to continue the area's recovery efforts given the risk to workers and the disruption to wildlife, including bald eagles and the endangered pallid sturgeon.

Though the impact of the spill on wildlife is still unclear, the cleanup efforts have an effect of their own. Bulldozers, vacuum trucks, helicopters, and booming air boats that move along the ice are all noisy and disruptive, Peronard acknowledged. At some point, the negatives of the cleanup process will outweigh the benefits of recovering crude

In an oil spill, he said, "you don't get to make good decisions. You get to make less bad ones."

On Twitter: Follow Christina Nunez and get more environment and energy coverage at NatGeoGreen.

The story is part of a special series that explores energy issues. For more, visit The Great Energy Challenge.

Read This Next

Clothing from 1600s shipwreck shows how the 1 percent lived
A Q&A with Nikole Hannah-Jones on ‘The 1619 Project’

Go Further

Subscriber Exclusive Content

Why are people so dang obsessed with Mars?

How viruses shape our world

The era of greyhound racing in the U.S. is coming to an end

See how people have imagined life on Mars through history

See how NASA’s new Mars rover will explore the red planet

Why are people so dang obsessed with Mars?

How viruses shape our world

The era of greyhound racing in the U.S. is coming to an end

See how people have imagined life on Mars through history

See how NASA’s new Mars rover will explore the red planet

Why are people so dang obsessed with Mars?

How viruses shape our world

The era of greyhound racing in the U.S. is coming to an end

See how people have imagined life on Mars through history

See how NASA’s new Mars rover will explore the red planet