Last week I vacationed in western Montana, where I was born and raised. Skipping stones on Flathead Lake and walking for miles along the Clark Fork river, I was acutely aware of the dangerously high water levels – higher than I’ve ever seen – which have led to flooding throughout the state this spring and summer. I was oblivious, however, to the environmental tragedy that was unfolding in eastern Montana: 42,000 gallons of crude oil spilling from an Exxon pipeline into the Yellowstone River. I only learned of the spill after I’d returned to work in Washington DC.

Putting it in perspective

Like many, I’m sure, the first thing I did was consult a map, and I heaved a sigh of relief after confirming that Yellowstone National Park, where I’d passed many summer days as a child, was unaffected by the spill.  Then I crunched some numbers, and almost convinced myself that it’s not so bad. After all, 42,000 gallons is only 1000 barrels, a drop in the bucket compared to the 53,000 to 62,000 barrels which spilled into the Gulf of Mexico every day for nearly three months during the Deepwater Horizon disaster of 2010.

While the impact on local Montana fisheries and agriculture won’t be known for some time — just as we won’t know the true impacts on the Gulf ecosystem of the BP spill for years to come — it’s encouraging that drinking water has been deemed safe in both the immediate area and further downstream in North Dakota.

So why does this small spill still break my heart? Probably because, even with a small spill on a minor pipeline, Big Oil still can’t seem to get it right.

Business as usual

In the year leading up to the Yellowstone River spill, local officials had raised questions about the safety of the section of pipeline under the river, particularly the risk of damage from erosion. Recent Exxon surveys returned conflicting numbers on the depth of the pipe, ranging from 5 feet to 12 feet below the riverbed, with the most egregious overestimate occurring just a month before the spill. In addition, according to the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration, Exxon was slow to respond to corrosion warnings and was relying on outdated schematics from the 1990s.  It’s not entirely clear to me whether Exxon was explicitly in violation of any regulations, but it is certainly clear that Exxon was slow to respond to a number of red flags and that the company’s survey numbers appear highly suspect.

The mismanagement continued after the spill, with Exxon initially misreporting by half the duration of the spill, and there remains uncertainty about the final volume of the spill. It’s hard not to hear, in this pattern, echoes of the Deepwater Horizon disaster, when BP’s initial estimate of the spill rate was between 2% and 10% of the actual rate.

During the first week of cleanup, local residents criticized Exxon’s response to the spill, specifically for publicly downplaying the potential health impacts while privately encouraging residents to relocate their livestock and to avoid visiting the area. Meanwhile, Montana Governor Brian Schweitzer pulled out of a joint oil spill command center, alleging that it was “secretive and largely run by the Texas oil giant,” and has threatened to bring a lawsuit against Exxon. The EPA has deemed the company’s cleanup plan insufficient, and ordered revisions be made to the plan.

Canadian geese downstream from the spill

Can we trust Big Oil?

Back in March, Exxon CEO Rex Tillerson tried to distance his company and his industry from the dark stain of the Deepwater Horizon disaster, claiming that any “conclusion that this is a bigger problem for the industry is just wrong” and citing, in particular, problems with “management oversight” at BP.

Tillerson would have us believe that Exxon is somehow immune to catastrophes like the one that struck BP in 2010, but how can we believe him when Exxon can’t prevent or properly manage a spill a mere 0.02% of its size? Taken as a whole, Exxon’s handling of the Yellowstone River spill is all too familiar: warning signs ignored, impacts miscalculated and misrepresented, cleanup inadequate and mismanaged, responsibility and transparency all but absent.

It breaks my heart to see the Yellowstone River, whose waters I swam in as a child, choking on Exxon’s mistakes, and I eagerly await the day when Big Oil sees responsibility and transparency as on-the-ground mandates, not public relations hurdles.