Saturday, July 23, 2011

Shocker: Yellowstone pipeline may have leaked more oil than previously estimated

ExxonMobil cleanup workers clip branches coated with crude oil from a tree along the Yellowstone River near Billings on Friday. After a pipeline spilled an estimated 1,000 barrels of oil into the river on July 1, receding floodwaters are revealing more contamination miles downstream from the spill site. AP PHOTO/MATTHEW BROWN

Is anybody really surprised about this news?

Also Friday, Montana environmental regulators said the pipeline may have leaked up to 1,200 barrels of oil into the scenic river. That equals 50,400 gallons and is 20 percent higher than prior estimates from ExxonMobil.

Readers of this blog might remember a post a couple of weeks back where I did my own calculations of how much oil might have leaked out the ruptured Silvertip pipeline based on the information we have from ExxonMobil.

40,000 bbl a day ÷ 24 hours in a day=1,666.66 bbl per hour

1,666.66 bbl per hour ÷ 60 minutes per hour=27.77 bbl per minute

27.77 bbl per minute x 56 minutes= 1,555.55 bbl

So we’re not quite there yet, but something tells me this won’t be the last time we read the phrase “higher than prior estimates from ExxonMobil.” Will we ever know for sure how much oil fouled the Yellowstone? Probably not. 

Friday, July 22, 2011

Legislature’s ex-top lawyer to run for U.S. House

DECISION 2012 copyThe Montana Legislature's former top attorney, Rob Stutz, said Friday he's considering running for the U.S. House.

"I was looking at legal issues and the amount of time that was spent trying to govern the people of Montana on legal issues and constitutional issues that really were already decided issues of law," Stutz said. "That was what motivated me to think I can work with the people and not get bogged down by a bunch of extremist procedural and fundamental legal issues procedural and settled legal issues."

Stutz, 38, resigned as the Legislature's chief legal counsel mid-session last March after fewer than nine months on the job.

Stutz gave no reason for his departure at the time. Susan Fox, executive director of the Legislative Services Division, said only that it had to do with a "personnel matter."

Stutz said in an interview Friday said that the legal work of the Legislature was completed after the transmittal break so he opted to take accrued leave time to consider running for Congress.

His term at the Legislature officially ended July 1, Stutz said.

"When the legal work was done for the session, I was done, and I've been looking into running for Congress since then," Stutz said.

Stutz said he's planning on running as a Democrat. He said his primary motivation for seeking the seat stemmed from "seeing the way the Constitution was treated during this last legislative session."

Stutz is the fourth Democrat to signal his interest to seek the party's nomination in June. Democratic state Sen. Kim Gillan of Billings, state Rep. Franke Wilmer of Bozeman, and Missoula City Councilman Dave Strohmaier have already officially announced their campaign.

On the Republican side, presumed GOP frontrunner Steve Daines, who ran for Lieutenant Governor in 2008, is facing a challenge from John Abarr, a former Ku Klux Klan organizer from Great Falls.

Republican Denny Rehberg is giving up his post as Montana's lone Congressman to challenge incumbent U.S. Sen. Jon Tester, a Democrat, in what will be the marquee statewide political matchup in 2012.

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Billionaire candy bar mogul buys one-third of Tongue River Railroad, gets into coal business

Mars letter1

Billionaire Forrest E. Mars, Jr. has reached an agreement with BNSF Railway Co. and coal giant Arch Coal to buy one-third of the Tongue River Railroad. The candy bar and pet food mogul said the purchase would prevent the construction of the proposed railway along major stretch of the Tongue River Valley in southeastern Montana.

In a July 18 letter to Ed Gulick, chairman of the conservation group Northern Plains Resource Council, Mars said he would no longer help fund ongoing legal challenges or future litigation related to the controversial 130-mile long railroad that would transport coal from Montana to Midwestern power plants and beyond.

"I have reached an agreement with BNSF Railway Company and Arch Coal to buy the Tongue River Railroad permits from (Tongue River Railroad president) Mike Gustafson and protect a significant area along the Tongue River from future development," Mars wrote. "I sincerely hope that the Northern Plains (Resource Council) is pleased with this result."

[Click here to see the letter]

Mars concluded the letter by saying, "I should also tell you that I will not be helping you fund the current appeal or any future litigation on these issues."

According to Mark Fix,  past chair of Northern Plains Resource Council and a rancher along the route of the proposed railroad, Mars supported Northern Plains in the past when the Tongue River Railroad threatened to cross Mars' 82,000-acre Diamond Cross Ranch.

In July 2010 Northern Plains and Fix petitioned the Surface Transportation Board, the federal agency that regulates railroad mergers, to stop construction of the Tongue River Railroad arguing that no adequate study of the environmental impacts of the coal train had been completed. The STB denied the petition and the case is currently before the 9th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals.

Fix said Mars' recent actions will have no affect on the ongoing litigation.

"We've got lots of members and basically we're a grassroots organization," Fix said. "We rely on our members. We don't look to huge donors to fund our campaigns."

Calls to Mars' attorney and managers at the Diamond Cross Ranch were not returned as of press time.

Mars said in his letter that under the deal the Tongue River Railroad would not be built between Decker, near the Wyoming border, and the southern border of the Northern Cheyenne Indian Reservation near O'Dell Creek road, about six miles northeast of Birney. The portion of the proposed railroad between O'Dell road, approximately 10 miles south of Ashland, and Miles City, would not be affected by the deal, according to Mars.

Conservation groups opposed to the railroad and the development of massive coal mines in the Otter Creek reacted harshly to the news Wednesday.

Ranchers and farmers along the route have fought for decades to prevent its construction, arguing that it would bisect farms and ranches in the Tongue River Valley and reduce property values, separating grazing land from water, spread weeds and possibly start fires.

“We have always been dedicated to protecting the entire Tongue River Valley,” said Jeanie Alderson, vice chair of Northern Plains a third-generation Tongue River rancher. “I depend on my neighbors as much as they depend on me. Our operations work because we are not dissected by an industrial railroad.”

Jim Jensen is the executive director of the Montana Environmental Information Center. That group sued the state Land Board in May 2010 arguing that board failed to weigh the environmental and economic consequences or consider any alternatives that might be more beneficial to the state when it agreed to lease 500 million tons of Otter Creek coal to Arch Coal for $86 million. That case is still pending in district court.

"This letter means that Forrest Mars won't have a railroad crossing his property and several other ranchers will be saved from that fate, but the Tongue River Railroad between Miles City and Ashland also crosses a lot of property and the river is beautiful there too," Jensen said. "We will do everything in our power forever to stop the mining of Otter Creek because coal is the fuel of the past. It's dirty and it's changing our climate."

Opponents of the project have speculated that one of the driving forces behind the Tongue River Railroad was the desire to ship Wyoming to Midwest power markets. Now landowners say the focus has shifted and the purpose is to transport Otter Creek coal to ports on the West Coast and on to markets in China.

"We will not allow the Tongue River Railroad to be built because it will tear apart Montana ranch land and negatively impact agriculture in southeastern Montana to haul more of our coal to China just to make corporations and rich individuals richer," Fix said.

Mars said the state would "greatly benefit" from new jobs and revenue created by the developing of the Ashland to Miles City-stretch of the railroad.

"The agreement with BNSF and Arch is the best of both worlds — it projects a large portion of the Tongue River and allow for economic development in Montana," Mars wrote.

Critics disagree.

"I disagree completely with Mr. Mars' contention that that will somehow be good for Montana," Jensen said. "It won't be good for Montana, won't be good for the region and certainly won't be good for the word. We do not need more death trains hauling coal to be burned."

Monday, July 18, 2011

Double standard for perjury in Missoula County?

Late last year I wrote here about a story that Lee’s Mike Dennison has been following about a Missoula man has fought for nearly a decade to overturn is rape conviction.

Settlement Law Justice Clip ArtCody Marble, 27, was convicted in 2002 of raping a 13-year-old fellow inmate at the Missoula County Juvenile Detention Facility and sentenced to 20 years in prison. Marble adamantly denied the charges from the beginning and has insisted all along that he was set up by his fellow inmates.

Dennison reported last December that victim, now in his 20s, admitted to investigators for the Montana Innocence Project that he made up his testimony. From Dennison’s piece:

In a statement filed Tuesday with Marble's petition, the alleged victim, now 22, says he was not raped by Marble and that he was told by other teenagers held in the detention center to make up the story to frame Marble for the crime.

“I testified falsely against Cody Marble at the trial,” he said in his statement. “I thought by then that the story had gone too far and I could not go back. I never thought he would be found guilty or go to prison. ... My hope now is to set the record straight.”

What was Missoula County Attorney Fred Van Valkenburg’s response to seeing the victim’s signed a statement recanting his 2002 testimony?

“It's just one more thing that Cody Marble is trying to do to avoid responsibility for his case,” Van Valkenburg said. “We're just going to have to deal with it.”

Dennison followed-up on the story last week reporting that Van Valkenburg filed court documents saying that Marble has “no evidence” that could overturn his rape conviction  because the victim has “repeatedly refused” to sign a sworn statement recanting his 2002 court testimony. The victim, by the way, is serving a sentence in Deer Lodge for having sex with an underage girl, and is thus already under the thumb of the criminal justice system.

Now, according to the victim’s lawyer, Brett Schandelson of Missoula, the victim “has no desire to participate in Mr. Marble’s petition any further” and “will not answer questions put to him by either party.”

“He desires to be left alone and continue the good progress he has made at (prison) Boot Camp,” Schandelson wrote.

Could the reason his client doesn’t want to go on the record and say he lied in 2002 have something to do with his fear of being prosecuted for perjury, a crime punishable by up to 10 years in prison and a $50,000 fine?

Marble has asked the court to grant the victim—who was 13 at the time of the alleged rape—immunity from perjury.

But according to Dennison’s report, Van Valkenburg opposed that request, saying:

…anyone who gave knowingly false testimony at a trial should not be shielded from prosecution.

“If prosecutorial immunity is given to those who perjure themselves, there is no guaranteeing the veracity of any future testimony,” Van Valkenburg said in court papers filed this week.

So if the victim comes forward and recants testimony he gave when he was 13 and says that the rape Cody Marble was convicted of never happened, he could face more prison time and a huge fine. But if he doesn’t recant, he serves out his sentence in Deer Lodge and goes on with his life while Cody Marble continues to be labeled as a sex offender. That’s the situation Van Valkenburg has set up by denying to give the victim prosecutorial immunity. 

Van Valkenburg’s position really blows me away.  Here’s why:

In February 2006 I covered the high-profile trial of a man accused of raping a woman at a now-defunct popular nightclub in Missoula. Wilbert Fish was charged with sexual intercourse without consent, a felony, after police alleged they saw Fish with his hand down the pants of an unconscious 21-year-old woman.

However, video surveillance tapes shown to jurors forced arresting Missoula Police officers Ryan Ludemann and Duncan Crawford to admit on the stand that they had falsified the arrest report and gave false testimony during the trial. It also came out during that trial that Officer Ludemann has history of lying while on the job. Ludemann once cited a woman for driving with a suspended license based on an accusation made by his own wife, despite the fact that he never actually saw the woman driving.  Driving with a suspended licenses carries a minimum 48 hours in jail. Ludemann wrote in his official report that he saw the woman driving but that he “lost her in traffic.” He then lied to his superiors to try to cover-up his lies. He admitted to all of that during the Fish trial.

After hearing that testimony and after watching video surveillance tapes that proved that Ludemann and Crawford were lying, it took the jury of four women and eight men less than two hours to find Fish not guilty of rape.

So does giving false testimony equal perjury?

According to Montana Code 45-7-201:

A person commits the offense of perjury if in any official proceeding he knowingly makes a false statement under oath or equivalent affirmation or swears or affirms the truth of a statement previously made, when the statement is material.

To my knowledge, neither officer Ludemann nor Crawford were ever charged with perjury for their testimony in the Fish trial, despite the fact that they both admitted to giving false statements under oath. I don’t know if they were officially reprimanded.

Which brings me to my point. Van Valkenburg was willing to turn a blind eye to perjury when his own law enforcement officials are committing it in the name of securing a conviction. But if a man in his 20s wants to officially “set the record straight” about a lie he says he told when he was 13-years-old—and in the process clear the name of a man who may have been falsely convicted of rape—he should face 10 years in prison and a $50,000 fine?

Colin Stephens, Marble’s attorney, told Dennison that if the victim is given immunity, “he’ll certainly testify at any new hearing on Marble’s request to overturn his conviction.”

As Stephens points out in the article, “the question for the court is whether the jury would have convicted Marble if they knew the victim changed his testimony.”

Van Valkenburg dismissed the recantation obtained by the Innocence Project as: “the result of a non-objective, non-forensic, leading, goal-oriented ‘investigation’ by an organization whose mission it is to reverse jury convictions,” he argued.

It appears from his statements and actions that Missoula County Attorney Fred Van Valkenburg places a higher value on preserving convictions than serving justice.

Friday, July 15, 2011

Tester bests Rehberg in 2nd quarter fundraising

Incumbent Democratic U.S. Sen. Jon Tester outraised Republican challenger Rep. Denny Rehberg in second quarter of 2011 fundraising.

In reports filed today with the Federal Elections Commission, Tester reported contributions totaling $1,255,948.24 between April 1 and June 30. Rehberg raised $914,656.63 during the same period.

Tester's campaign, Montanans for Tester, has $2,335,139.80 in cash on hand. Rehberg's campaign, Montanan's for Rehberg, reported having $1,500,744.90 in the bank.

Montana's U.S. Senate race is shaping up to be one of the marquee Senate races of the 2012 election, and the early fundraising numbers highlight that, said veteran political observer Jennifer Duffy, senior editor for The Cook Political Report.

"Republicans need four seats to win the majority in the Senate, and this is absolutely one of them," Duffy said. "Both parties are going to fight in Montana like their majorities depend on it."

Both campaign in press releases traded barbs over their opponents' ties to "Wall Street" and "big oil."

Rehberg’s top sheets here
Tester’s top sheets here

Tester campaign manager, Preston Elliott, said Tester's fundraising numbers show that people are "throwing their support behind this grassroots campaign because they know how effectively Jon represents Montana values in the U.S. Senate — as a Montana farmer who still comes home every weekend."

Rehberg's campaign countered that Tester has "relied heavily on Wall Street banking executives" and "Hollywood elites" to fund his campaign while stating that the majority of Rehberg's individual donors are Montanans.

“Denny’s Made in Montana campaign continues to surge all across Big Sky Country,” said Rehberg campaign manager Erik Iverson. "We’ll probably never out-fundraise Wall Street Jon and his Big Bank money but we don’t need to because Montanans know Denny is right on the issues and always puts Montana first.”

Elliott accused Rehberg's campaign of resulting to "Washington's dirty politics" by getting "big oil and Wall Street special interests" to fund early TV attacks against Tester.

"We about building a powerful grassroots campaign in order to make sure that Montanans know the truth about Jon and his good work," Elliott said.

Tester reported taking-in $946,922.61 in individual contributions and $307,069.51 from political action committees, or PACs. Rehberg received $720,769.13 from individual donors and took-in $192,987.50 in PAC monies. Rehberg also received $700 from political party committees.

Duffy said the second quarter numbers show just how important Montana's U.S. Senate seat is to both parties.

"I think both candidates had really good quarters," Duffy said. "I know that Democrats will make a quite a lot of Tester's cash-on-hand advantage, but the reality is pretty simple: in a race like this that is a huge priority for both parties, there's going to be no money difference. Neither of them are going to have to worry about money."

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

BREAKING NEWS: Activists lock down Montana Governor’s Office over oil pipeline

UPDATE: Here’s the raw video from today’s meeting between environmental activists and Gov. Brian Schweitzer. Warning: there is some harsh language that may  not suitable for all viewers.


I’ll have more on this as the day goes on, including photos and video from today’s protest in Gov. Brian Schweitzer’s office, but here’s the latest.

More than 100 environmental activists from across the country descended on Schweitzer's office Tuesday morning to demand that he rescind his support for the Keystone XL oil pipeline and the Exxon Mobile megaload transportation project.

Schweitzer met with the rowdy group of activists in the reception room of his office, but refused to meet their demands that he give up support for the massive pipeline project and the transportation project to serve the Canadian tar sands. Activists from Northern Rockies Rising Tide, Earth First! and other environmental groups said last week's rupture of an ExxonMobil pipeline that fouled dozens of miles of the Yellowstone River downstream of Laurel is a prime example of why Schweitzer should "toss big oil out of Montana."

Schweitzer met with the group for about 20 minutes and listened to their complaints and concerns before one of the activists began playing the piano in the reception room, prompting the other activists to jump on tables and dance and chant.

The governor said he hoped the environmental activists could put their passions toward ending the nation's addiction to foreign oil, which prompted boos from the crowed.

Missoula activist Nick Stocks of the Northern Rockies Rising Tide said that the activists were prepared to stay in the lobby of the governor's office indefinitely.

I’ll update this post throughout the day with more quotes from the meeting as well as video.


Monday, July 11, 2011

Schweitzer still supports oil sands/Keystone XL despite tough talk on Yellowstone oil spill


Gov. Brian Schweitzer has taken a tough public stance against ExxonMobil in the days following the 44,000 gallon Yellowstone River oil spill. Schweitzer has said he’ll be on Exxon “like smell on skunk” and that the Yellowstone River won't be clean, "until Montana says it’s clean.” Schweitzer has publically accused Exxon officials of not being transparent, directing security guards to keep the press away from the unified command center, and not being honest about the true nature of the spill. He's said that the company's interests "are not aligned with Montana's interest," and that ExxonMobil officials' "primary goal here was to limit the liability to the shareholders, not to be straightforward with the details of the spill and subsequent cleanup."

One Politico headline initially proclaimed that “Montana gov has boot on neck of ExxonMobil,” though the headline was recently changed to somewhat less hyperbolic “Montana gov on ExxonMobil like 'smell on a skunk.’

Many environmental groups – including representatives from the National Wildlife Federation on a conference call to reporters last week — have lauded Schweitzer for his hard-line approach to dealing with ExxonMobil during the disaster.

But others have accused Schweitzer of talking out of both sides of his mouth on the issue. They cite Schweitzer's  ardent support for coal, oil and gas development in Montana, his backing of ExxonMobil’s plan to truck more than 200 massive Korean-built tar sands processing modules across the state into Canada, and his support for Keystone XL pipeline, which would pipe Canadian tar sands crude (the same type of crude that fouled the Kalamazoo River when an Enbridge Energy pipeline burst there last year) from the Montana-Canada border to refineries along the Texas Gulf Coast.

Schweitzer on Wednesday told NPR On Point host Tom Ashbrook there is no contradiction between his support for fossil fuel development and his hard-lined response to ExxonMobil’s cleanup of the Yellowstone:

“We’re going to continue to develop energy in Montana. We’re an energy state. But we will not be a sacrifice zone for this energy’s needs. We will develop this energy on our terms, we will protect the landscape and the wildlife of Montana for this generation and future generations, and that energy that we develop in Montana will be developed on our terms.”

The Montana Environmental Information Center’s Jim Jensen doesn’t buy the notion that fossil fuel energy development can be “done right,” as Schweitzer and others claim.

“They’ve never done it right yet,” Jensen said on the same hour-long radio program.

As for Schweitzer, Jensen had this to say:

“Just two weeks ago he had a well-publicized meeting here in Helena with ExxonMobil executives and the result of that was him telling us that we should trust them to haul these massive loads of equipment up the Snake River, up the Lochsa River in Idaho and then the Blackfoot River in Montana into Alberta where they are developing these massive, hideous tar sands…he is a short-skirt cheerleader for that project.”

Missoula Independent columnist and former longtime environmental lobbyist George Ochenski also criticized Schweitzer for his continued support of the megaloads and Canadian tar sands development:

“Schweitzer has been a big booster of allowing Exxon to ship mega-loads of oil production equipment to Alberta's tar sands on Montana's two-lane highways. He also cheers on the proposed Keystone XL pipeline, which would be two and a half times larger than Exxon's ruptured line and transport tar sands crude across Montana. We can only hope when he finally gets a first-hand look at the destruction such corporate failures engender, he might reconsider his far-too-cozy relationship with Big Oil. His allegiance should be to Montanans, not Exxon Mobil.”

I recently asked Schweitzer if his lack of trust in ExxonMobil and their lack of transparency in dealing with the Yellowstone River oil spill has colored his views on the Keystone XL pipeline or Exxon’s impending megaload transportation project.

Here’s what he had to say:

“Well, as I've said from the very beginning, we would trust but verify. But at least as for the pipeline division I'm down to verifying and then verifying again.

“Any study that has been conducted on megaloads has been conducted within the context of the Montana Environmental Policy Act, and (the company) and the Montana Department of Transportation are following the Montana Environmental Policy Act to the letter of the law, as the public expects us to do.”

Friday, July 8, 2011

How much oil leaked into the Yellowstone?

2 dollar calculator

A friend got me thinking about just how much crude oil we can reasonably estimate really did leak into the Yellowstone River during the 56 minutes it took ExonnMobil Pipeline Company to shut down the Silvertip Pipeline that burst last Friday.

ExxonMobil continues to stand by their estimate that 1,000 barrels, or about 44,000 gallons, leaked into the river late Friday night. Then again, ExxonMobil also said it only took 6 minutes to shut down the pipeline, then it was 30 minutes “at most,” and then we we finally learned through documents from the US Department of Transportation Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration that it took 56 minutes to shut down the line.

So, as Gov. Brian Schweitzer likes to say, I pulled out my $2 calculator and did some calculations:

40,000 bbl a day/24 hours in a day=1,666.66 bbl per hour

1,666.66 bbl per hour/60 minutes per hour=27.77 bbl per minute

27.77 bbl per minute x 56 minutes= 1,555.55 bbl

Certainly there are other factors to consider. We don’t know how big the rupture was/is, and therefore what percentage of the oil flowing through the pipe was spewing out and under what pressures and volumes. We also don’t know how much oil was in the broken section pipe between the shut-off valves, or how much of that oil leaked into the river. We also don’t know if the pipeline was running at the 40,000 barrels per day volume, or if it was  running at higher or lower volumes. So it may be premature to say that ExxonMobil is underestimating the amount of oil that leaked into the Yellowstone River by more than a third.

Then again, given the lack of transparency that lead Schweitzer to pull the state out of the unified command, and the track record of other oil giants when it comes to the size of oil spills—for example, BP underestimated the Deepwater Horizon spill by up to five times; a recent Enbridge Energy pipeline leak in Canada went from four barrels to 1,500 barrels; Enbridge initially estimated that it’s pipeline leak in Michigan dumped 819,000 gallons of oil into the Kalamazoo River a year ago, that number was later upped to 1 million gallons—I think it’s probably a safe bet that we’re going to learn more oil spilled into the Yellowstone River than what we’re currently being told.

Use of dispersants on the Yellowstone River?


Oil dispersant and a sheen are seen on top of the water in the Gulf of Mexico on Wednesday, May 5, 2010 off the coast of Louisiana in the Gulf of Mexico.  AP Photo/The Houma Courier, Matt Stamey

Gov. Brian Schweitzer just sent another letter to ExxonMobil officials asking for more information about last Friday’s oil spill on the Yellowstone River, and in it he requests information about the use of dispersants used to clean up the oil.

Schweitzer addressed the letter to ExxonMobil chairman and CEO Rex Tillerson (whom CNN Money ranked #6 on its “25 most powerful people in business” list) and ExxonMobil president of refining and supply Sherman Glass.

According to the letter, Schweitzer wants to know exactly what’s in the estimated 44,000 gallons of oil that leaked into the river one week ago:

“It is imperative that the State of Montana receive all the background documentation on the type of crude oil that was in the ruptured Silvertip Pipeline. I am asking that you provide the last three years of data analysis that ExxonMobile (sic) possesses on the type of crude oil in that pipeline. This includes the viscosity, volatility, and toxicity analysis. Also, please provide any test data that the company possesses for the most effective dispersant for the crude oil that has spilled into the Yellowstone River and the recommended volume of dispersant for that spill.”

The thing that stood out from the letter was this line:

“…please provide any test data that the company possesses for the most effective dispersant for the crude oil that has spilled into the Yellowstone River and the recommended volume of dispersant for that spill.”

Most Americans first learned about the use of dispersants during the catastrophic BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. These are the chemicals oil companies use to break up and “clean” oil from the surface of the water.

At one point, according to ProPublica,  BP bought-up nearly one-third of the world’s supply of dispersants and began pumping hundreds of thousands of gallons of the chemicals onto the surface of the Gulf—and thousands of feet beneath it— in an effort to break up the steady flow of oil from the ocean floor.

As we all soon learned, dispersants have their own environmental and health problems that in some cases could be worse than the oil itself:

From ProPublica:

“There is a chemical toxicity to the dispersant compound that in many ways is worse than oil,” said Richard Charter, a foremost expert on marine biology and oil spills who is a senior policy advisor for Marine Programs for Defenders of Wildlife and is chairman of the Gulf of the Farallones National Marine Sanctuary Advisory Council. “It’s a trade-off – you’re damned if you do, damned if you don’t -- of trying to minimize the damage coming to shore, but in so doing you may be more seriously damaging the ecosystem offshore.”

That’s because dispersants themselves contain unknown toxins. We don’t know what those toxins are because the companies that make them claim their make-up is a “trade secret.”

And the risk isn’t just to the environment. As the New York Times reported, oil clean-up workers exposed to dispersants in the Gulf soon began exhibiting health problems:

“…seven crew members aboard fishing vessels who had been working to clean up Breton Sound, southeast of New Orleans, blamed the chemicals for health complaints including nausea, shortness of breath and high blood pressure.”

According to this report on the Gulf Oil Spill Health Hazards:

“The combination of detergent and hydrocarbons ingredients in dispersants with chemicals in crude oil is especially hazardous if someone inhales contaminated water spray.  The dispersant-oil complex in micelles can coat lung surfaces causing lipoid pneumonia, hypersensitivity pneumonitis, asthma and other serious health problems.” 

Read the report at the link above for more more detailed information on the hazards.

As far as Schweitzer’s request for any “test data,” I doubt ExxonMobil will be all that forthcoming with the information. After all, environmental groups who sued nearly a year ago to try to find out what was in the dispersants being pumped into the Gulf of Mexico are still in federal court.

Thursday, July 7, 2011

BREAKING: State pulling out of oil spill command team


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.

Wanzenried drops bid for governor

I just received an e-mail press release from state Sen. Dave Wanzenried, D-Missoula, state that he intends to discontinue his gubernatorial campaign.

Wanzenried said he didn’t meet fundraising goals for the first two quarters of campaign reporting period.

“Before filing paperwork required to begin raising money last November, I set some very ambitious goals in order to run the type of campaign Montanans expect and deserve,” he said.

“For a variety of reasons, through the first two reporting periods, those goals have not been met. I simply have not attracted enough investors to wage a viable a statewide campaign.”

Wanzenried said his most important job is “to continue to work hard to serve and listen to my constituents in Senate District 49.”

Could Wanzenried’s decision be tied to potential gubernatorial candidate and fellow Democrat Attorney General Steve Bullock’s rumored intentions to run for the office?

Wanzenried said in his statement:

"Steve Bullock is a long-time friend -- he has the skills to lead our state, preserve our budget surplus and create jobs. I've encouraged him to run for Governor and pledged to support him if he does."

A recent Public Policy Poll indicated that Bullock would be the clear frontrunner in a hypothetical six-way Democratic primary if he chose to run for the office. Bullock lead his nearest opponent, Lt. Gov. John Bohlinger, 40-27, although neither men have announced plans to run.

So far Bullock has been tight lipped about his intentions for 2012, but speculation that he will seek the seat vacated by Democratic Gov. Brian Schweitzer continues to mount. Bohlinger has also indicated that he’s considering running for the office.

On the Republican side, the PPP poll showed former Congressman Rick Hill with a solid lead over his potential opponents in a hypothetical seven-way primary contest. Hill lead nearest opponent Neil Livingstone, a cable TV pundit and terrorism expert, by a margin of 35-15.

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Schweitzer to open oil spill office in Billings

Gov. Brian Schweitzer announced today that he will open an office in Billings Thursday to help citizens who have comments, questions or concerns regarding the oil spill.  Schweitzer will host a public meeting there Friday.

According to a statement released by the governor’s office Wednesday afternoon, the Billings office will be staffed daily from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. by someone who will collect information from citizens and help get answers to their questions or concerns.

Citizens can also call the office at (406) 657-0231 beginning tomorrow. Schweitzer will be in the office for part of the day on Friday.

Schweitzer said state agencies will be holding a public meeting at 10:00 a.m. on July 8.

The office is located at 424 Morey Street in the Montana Department of Transportation Billings District Office.

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

AUDIO: ExxonMobil executives address the media

Exxon Mobil Pipeline Co. president Gary Pruessing holds a news conference on Monday July 4,2011, at a house along the Yellowstone River near Laurel, Mont. where the yard has been fouled by oil. An estimated 1,000 barrels of oil spilled from a ruptured pipeline underneath the river. (AP Photo/Matthew Brown)

Gary Pruessing, president of ExxonMobil Pipeline Company, addressed the media on the company's response to the Yellowstone River oil spill Tuesday afternoon. I’ve posted the audio below in two parts.

I apologize for the break, but my recorder died during the conference call and I had to switch to a backup recorder. There’s about a 5-10 second break. I also apologize for the low volume on the first clip. You’ll want to turn up the volume on your computer for the first part, and then be sure to turn it down again for the second. I’ve also included download links here: Part 1, Part 2.

Part 1

Part 2:

Revisiting last summer’s pipeline safety meeting

In doing some research on the oil spill disaster on the Yellowstone River, I dug this article out of the Tribune archives. I don’t have the ability to link to it since it was archived, but I thought it would be useful to post the complete story here given what’s happening on the Yellowstone River.

Oil from a ruptured ExxonMobil pipeline is seen in the Yellowstone River and along its banks near Laurel, Mont., Saturday July 2, 2011. The pipeline break was contained early Saturday morning but the spill stretched over dozens of miles.

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Schweitzer: State's oil wells have safeguards

HELENA - With millions of gallons of oil continuing to pour into the Gulf of Mexico, Gov. Brian Schweitzer on Tuesday convened a meeting with state officials to analyze the state's capacity to respond to a catastrophic oil spill in Montana.

Schweitzer met with top officials from the state Board of Oil and Gas Conservation, Department of Environmental Quality, Disaster and Emergency Services and Department of Natural Resources and Conservation to find out what the state is doing to ensure a major spill doesn't happen. He also asked what response plans are in place if a worst-case scenario should occur.

"After church and at the bar, and in coffee shops people are watching what's happening in the Gulf and they're wondering if that could happen in Montana," Schweitzer said.

According to Tom Richmond, administrator for the Board of Oil and Gas Conservation, the well that's gushing oil into the Gulf is about 100 times bigger than even the largest wells in Montana. Richmond said all of Montana's oil wells combined don't produce as much oil per day as what's flowing into the Gulf of Mexico daily.

"Montana has a complex geologic environment, and some of that environment actually helps reduce our risk," Richmond said.

He said most of Montana's oil reservoirs are low-pressure, making the possibility of a catastrophic oil well blowout unlikely. In addition, multiple safeguards are in place at every well to prevent blowouts or contain spills if they occur, Richmond said.

The most likely cause of a worst-case scenario spill would come from oil pipelines, state officials said. If a pipeline were to leak near a body of water such as the Yellowstone River, which flows through the heart of oil and gas country in eastern Montana, all bets are off.

Schweitzer said pipeline officials recently told him that safeguards were in place to ensure that leaks would be found quickly and that there is little danger to Montana's waterways. However, Schweitzer pointed to a recent incident in Utah where a leaking pipeline spilled an estimated 33,000 gallons of crude oil into a creek that flows into the Great Salt Lake.

"How did that happen?" Schweitzer asked.

DEQ Director Richard Opper said there are more stringent standards and requirements in place for newer pipelines, which make it easier for companies to detect and stop leaks before they create major problems.

"I think the ability to detect a leak in a newer pipeline is much, much greater than what we've seen in the past," Opper said. "Does that mean we can avert all disasters? No, not necessarily, but it does mean the shut off would occur more quickly than in an older pipeline."

Opper said he hopes that if there ever is a leak from a pipeline in Montana that the oil doesn't get into state waterways.

"If you keep it out of the water, it's a whole lot easier to clean up," Opper said. "It really ups the ante for cleanup if it manages to reach water."

Unlike mining companies in the state, oil producers and oil pipeline companies aren't required to post cleanup bonds to cover the cost of environmental disasters should a spill occur.

Schweitzer said after the meeting that he's going to look at the possibility of introducing legislation in the next session to require oil and gas companies to post a bond to ensure the state doesn't get stuck with cleanup costs.

"It's certainly something we're going to look it," Schweitzer said. "When the answer comes to me that it's the financial integrity of the company we're depending on, well companies come and go, but the Yellowstone River has been the same for the last 25,000 years or so," Schweitzer said. "We want to have some certainty that Montanans aren't stuck with cleanup."

Calgary-based TransCanada Corp. is hoping to start construction soon on the 1,980-mile Keystone XL pipeline, part of a $12 billion investment to move crude extracted from Canada's oil sands to refineries in the United States. That pipeline would go through Montana.

Opper said he has investigated allegations that the company is not using a thick enough material for its pipe. He said he found that the company plans to use a stronger but slightly thinner material that will be sturdy enough for the job.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.