BILLINGS — Exxon Mobil Co. had reassured federal regulators and officials from a Montana town since December that an oil pipeline beneath the Yellowstone River was safe, buried deep enough to avoid any accidental ruptures.
Then, on Friday night, the pipe failed, spilling an estimated 42,000 gallons into the flooded river.
The cause of the accident remains under investigation, but the prevailing theory among officials and the company is that the raging Yellowstone eroded the riverbed and exposed the line to damaging rocks or debris.
There is still no definitive word on how far downriver the spill could spread.
Here's a few simple background facts to keep in mind as you read the story at that link:
1) The infrastructure of America, from roads and bridges to rail lines and water mains, is in shambles. It could conceivably cost the equivalent of a year's GDP just to bring the entire infrastructure of the nation up to code.
2) There are only 110 inspectors in the US government for over 400,000 miles of pipeline for oil and natural gas. Current requirements are for inspections to be done on a rotating basis every five years, but those don't take into account follow ups to ensure compliance with any repairs.
3) Exxon claims "only" 42,000 gallons of oil spilled. By comparison, BP's first claims last year was zero oil was released. The US Coast Guard had an initial estimate of a 1,000 barrels a day. 42,000 gallons translates to....1,000 barrels. The final official estimates for the BP spill were 62,000 barrels (about 2.6 million gallons) a day. Worst case estimates were nearly triple that.
4) The Gulf oil spill affected a wide swath of open water. The Yellowstone spill is concentrated and on a moving body of water. Oil has been unofficially reported as far away as 240 miles.
5) Wildlife in the Gulf can swim away from the oil. Wildlife in Montana relies on the oil for drinking, and eventually the river creatures bump into barriers to further movement, effectively trapping themselves in the spill.