By Destini Vaile and Reed Perry
Plenty of people have heard of the recent oil spill on the Yellowstone River in Montana. Few are aware, however, that three weeks ago another leak formed a creek of crude running down to Cut Bank River just miles from Glacier National Park.
Cowardly local papers, perhaps for fear of hurting tourism or stepping in front of juggernaut corporations, have completely ignored reports from environmental officials and concerned citizens. They have often repeated the drilling company’s press releases verbatim.
We were on site and documented it. (Video at bottom)
The corporation’s reports are false. How can 420 gallons of oil travel a mile through a wheat field into a wetland, down a winding ravine and into a river? It was much much larger. We also do not know when it began, but we know it was three weeks ago was when it was first reported.
A break in an oil collection pipeline on the eastern prairie of the Blackfeet Reservation approximately 5 miles from the town of Cutbank has led to a flood of crude that has been flowing approximately one mile over land and into the Cutbank river. Tribal officials received word of the spill on Tuesday, but it remains unclear when, or why, the pipeline — which is managed by FX Drilling — actually began leaking oil.
Tribal officials confirmed that oil was spotted in the river at least two weeks ago by a kayaker who reported to 911 that he was paddling through oil. According to a preliminary investigation by the Blackfoot Environmental Department, FX Drilling attempted to fix the pipeline after the 911 call, but left the break unmended for over a week, claiming they were unable to access the site. Also, according to the investigation, FX failed to initiate cleanup on the site after fixing the pipeline.
On Wednesday, nearly three weeks after the initial discovery of the spill, absorbent booms were finally placed by Indian Country Environmental Associates (ICEA) on the shore of the Cutbank where the oil merges with the river. ICEA is a company contracted by the tribe to handle cleanup of oil spills on the reservation.
FX Drilling Corporation has claimed that the leak released “two barrels” of oil, or 84 gallons. However, officials with the Blackfeet Environmental Department have estimated the spill to be “several thousand gallons.” The volume of oil observed at the site was large enough to seep through a wheat field and down a coulee for approximately one mile where it entered the Cutbank River. It is the second significant release of oil into Montana rivers during the last month.
Several questions plague the indicent, not least is FX Drilling’s handling of the spillage. Their failure to disclose the event to the press, community, or Tribal authorities has caused suspicion that their conduct was not merely negligent, but indicative of a coverup. According to Mary Clare Weatherwax, an official at the Blackfeet Environmental Department, “There was definitely a lack of communication that would have allowed a proper response.” Weatherwax was also concerned that a wetland in the path of the spill had absorbed much of the oil as it traveled downhill.
As local ecologists, we became aware of the spill when contractors began quietly hiring people off the street offering $25 an hour (cash) cleanup jobs. On Friday, we located the source of the leakage on the edge of a wheat field and began measuring the dimensions of the contamination. We obtained soil and water samples from the shore of the river, and are now awaiting analysis from the Blackfeet Hospital Water Lab.
Video of the incident:
See coordinates of the spill area on Google HERE:
The authors of this article are Destini Vaile, a writer and member of the Blackfeet Tribe, and Reed Perry, a Montana Ecologist.
All photos copyright Destini Vaile, 2011.