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Putting spin on the spill: ExxonMobil downplays extent of Yellowstone pipeline leak

Editorial, The Missoulian, July 8, 2011

The oil may have stopped gushing from a ruptured pipeline beneath Yellowstone River, but Montanans' concerns about the potential damage from this spill are as yet unabated.

Unfortunately, Exxon Mobil's response has done very little to stanch these concerns. In fact, the company's recent reassurances have been less than reassuring.

For instance, ExxonMobil Pipeline Co. president Gary Pruessing initially said the pipeline was sealed off just 30 minutes after the breach. Records from the federal Department of Transportation indicate it took closer to an hour.

The company also said at first that the affected area would be limited to a 10-mile area. Federal officials have disputed that too, saying oil has been found at least 25 miles away from the rupture, and some reports indicate the oil has traveled 40 miles downstream.

Perhaps most bewilderingly, Pruessing also told reporters that no one has found any wildlife harmed by the oil - a credulity-straining statement if ever there was one.

Yet these statements downplaying the extent of the spill came as no surprise. Such public relations palaver is, apparently, an industry standard.

Consider that Exxon officials have long disputed findings from federal scientists about the lingering environmental impacts of the 1989 Exxon Valdez accident, which spilled 11 million gallons of oil into Alaska's Prince William Sound. And BP tried a similar tactic following the Gulf oil spill last year, when BP head Tony Hayward infamously told reporters that "everything we can see at the moment suggests that the overall environmental impact will be very, very modest.")

Certainly, we are no stranger to arguments about the extent of spills in Missoula, either. When the Yellowstone Pipeline ruptured in Missoula back in 1992, for instance, a Conoco spokesman pegged the gasoline leak at a mere 50 gallons - vastly below official estimates of between 5,000 and 10,000 gallons - even as gasoline sprayed from a broken gasket on Raser Drive at a rate of about 250 gallons a minute.

So if there is little public confidence in these companies' claims now, they have only themselves to blame.

Exxon Mobil was handed a new public relations opportunity when the pipeline burst under Yellowstone River last Saturday, spilling an estimated 1,000 barrels, or about 42,000 gallons, of crude oil. Ideally, the company would take responsibility for the full extent of the damage and acknowledge the challenges of cleaning the area. Currently, cleanup is being complicated by flood stage waters and rough currents.

Montanans are waiting for straightforward information from Exxon telling us exactly what it is doing to fix this mess.

So far, however, the best assurances have come from Gov. Brian Schweitzer, who wasted no time gathering and sharing information about the spill with Montanans. On Tuesday, he issued an executive order authorizing any necessary expenditures in order for state agencies to address the oil spill. And earlier, he directed state officials to "monitor Exxon Mobil and any other responsible parties until this spill and impacts of this spill are completely cleaned up," promising that, "The parties responsible will restore the Yellowstone River."

Kudos to the governor for demanding accountability.

Meanwhile, the Department of Transportation has told Exxon to move its 20-year-old Silvertip pipeline deeper than its current 5 to 8 feet beneath the riverbed, and the company has promised complete compliance.

At the moment, Exxon is targeting a handful of sites along the river for cleanup. It has already put some workers in place along the river to try to sop up the worst of the spill. That's the kind of action Montana residents need to see more of.

It's not too late for the company to clean up its image with Montanans - by immediately and thoroughly cleaning up our river.

Copyright 2011 missoulian.com.

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