Thursday, July 7, 2011

BREAKING: State pulling out of oil spill command team

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Gov. Brian Schweitzer tours oil impacted sites along side the Yellowstone River in Laurel, Mont., Tuesday July 5, 2011. AP Photo by Jim Urquhart.

Gov. Brian Schweitzer on Thursday said the state is pulling out of the unified command team overseeing the cleanup of oil from a ruptured ExxonMobil pipeline that leaked an estimated 1,000 barrels of crude oil into the Yellowstone River late last Friday.

Schweitzer accused ExxonMobil officials of not being transparent about the extent of the oil spill and the resulting cleanup effort.

"We're actually pulling out of the incident command with ExxonMobil because they are refusing to be transparent with the public," Schweitzer said in an interview Thursday. "They have security guards that don't let the press in. They're telling our Department of Environmental Quality officials that the documents that we're sharing are not public documents, and I have said we will not be involved in an organization like that so we're pulling out."

ExxonMobil spokesman Pius Rolheiser said the company had not been notified of any changes to the unified command.

"We at the incident command have had no indication to this point that we should expect any change in the incident command structure," Rolheiser said. "Certainly none that I'm aware of and I'm at the command center."

Rolheiser said state DEQ officials were working at the incident comment center in Billings as of 2:30 Thursday afternoon.

Matthew Allen, a spokesman for EPA, said the agency was unaware that the state intended to pull out of the incident command team and declined to respond.

Schweitzer expressed frustration with ExxonMobil's response to the spill and the concerns of residents and landowners along the affected stretches of waterway. He said the state opened its own incident response office at the Montana Department of Transportation office in Billings to respond more effectively to citizens concerns.

Rolheiser said the company had made every effort to be transparent and to work as closely as possible with state and federal agencies.

"Our top priority has been to identity where the oil is, managing it and cleaning it up and managing impacts," Rolheiser said. "We have stated emphatically — including at the community meetings in Billings (Wednesday) night — that we will be there until that cleanup is complete, and the cleanup will be complete when the state of Montana says it's complete."

Schweitzer said officials with the state Department of Environmental Quality, along with state agriculture officials, will hold a meeting Friday morning to provide guidance to landowners on how to collect their own samples and submit them for testing.

"We're not in the business of submitting samples to ExxonMobil and asking their opinion," Schweitzer said. "We'll submit these samples to third party laboratories and what we'll submit to ExxonMobil is the bill."

Late Wednesday Schweitzer sent a strongly worded letter to Sherman Glass, ExxonMobil's president of refining and supply, demanding that the company preserve any possible evidence related to the ruptured pipeline in case of future litigation. Schweitzer also insisted that officials from both the state DEQ and the Environmental Protection Agency be on hand to observe any work the company does to replace the pipeline.

Rolheiser said he was unaware of the letter and declined to comment.

Schweitzer on Thursday sent a letter to Cynthia Quarterman, administrator of the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration, requesting records related to ExxonMobil’s Silvertip Pipeline dating back to 2006, including but not limited to “correspondence, notes, memoranda, reports, inspections, maps, charts, and all other documents…”

Schweitzer also requested records related to “complaints, regulatory violations, corrective actions, remedial actions, or concerns about any pipeline located in whole or in part in Montana….” 

UPDATE: Schweitzer’s office launched a new website with information about the Yellowstone River Oil Spill. Here’s the link.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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