HELENA, Mont. – A newly discovered oil spill in northwestern Montana went unreported for a month before a neighboring landowner complained to the Blackfeet Indian Tribe, federal regulators said Monday.
FX Drilling Co. never reported the spill, estimated to be between 420 and 840 gallons, to the tribe or to the Environmental Protection Agency, EPA spokesman Joe Vranka said.
The amount spilled at the FX Drilling Co. oil field in a remote corner of the Blackfeet Indian Reservation appears to be much less than the estimated 42,000 gallons that emptied into the Yellowstone River earlier this month. But the northwestern Montana spill comes at a time when all pipeline and oil operations in the state are under scrutiny as a result of the larger Exxon Mobil Corp. pipeline break.
The company discovered the break in the flow line between two oil wells on June 12 and shut down the line, Vranka said. Company officials may have believed the spill didn't go beyond the oil field, he said, when oil had actually flowed down a ravine nearly a mile to the Cut Bank Creek, which connects with the Marias River.
A neighboring landowner notified the Blackfeet tribe last Tuesday, and the tribe in turn notified the EPA. Officials from the federal agency made the first contact with FX Drilling by calling the company, Vranka said.
The company had 24 hours to report a spill once it reached the waterway, Vranka said. The federal agency is looking into possible penalties against the independent oil and gas producer.
"They need to report these things in a more timely fashion," Vranka said. "The only explanation that we've gotten is that they had it shut down and followed (the spill) a little ways."
Andy Pierce, vice president of FX Energy Inc., the Salt Lake-based parent company of FX Drilling contradicted the EPA's account, telling told The Associated Press that the line had been leaking for 10 to 14 days before the landowner reported it last week.
"It's unlikely that it happened more than a couple of weeks ago," Pierce said.
Pierce estimated that between 10 to 15 barrels of crude, or 420 to 630 gallons, leaked from the broken line as a result of the earth shifting during flooding in the area.
"You get flow line leaks from time to time, but they generally get spotted right away," Pierce said. "The reason this went on as long as it did is because the surface is tough to get around on right now."
Pierce said he doesn't believe oil contaminated the creek, though the head of the cleanup crew said that an unknown amount of crude escaped to the water.
Gabe Renville, the senior environmental scientist for Indian Country Environmental Associates, said whatever oil made it to Cut Bank Creek has washed away and there are no visible signs of the spill on the shoreline. He also put the amount spilled at between, 15 and 20 barrels, or up to 840 gallons, a bit higher than the company's estimates.
A 4-foot berm was built where the coulee meets the Cut Bank Creek and a 50-foot boom skirt with liner has been looped around the area to prevent any further contamination, his agency said. Oil has coated the soil and vegetation in and around the ravine, and there are 11 standing pools of water slicked with oil.
The ravine is steep and treacherous, with rattlesnakes and scorpions hiding under rocks. The dozen workers are unable to get any heavy equipment into the area to carry the oil out, meaning the excavating and transport has to be done by hand and all-terrain vehicles, Renville said.
"When you first look, you wonder how you're going to get it out of the coulee," Renville said. "One thing's for certain, we'll get it out."
There has been no public notice of the leak since it was reported on July 12. A response plan by Renville's organization said a meeting between the tribe, the EPA and the federal Bureau of Land Management was held the next day. The state of Montana was not notified until Friday, according to the state Department of Environmental Quality.
Because the spill happened on tribal land, the state has no jurisdiction, DEQ spokeswoman Lisa Peterson said.
Most of FX Energy's operations are concentrated on natural gas exploration and production in Poland, but the company says on its website that 94 percent of its oil production comes from the 10,000-acre Cut Bank field.
Some 350 miles away in south-central Montana, workers removed about 100 barrels of oil from the broken Exxon Mobil pipeline in the Yellowstone River and EPA officials say they believe the pipe no longer poses a threat to releasing any more oil.
Vranka, who normally supervises the EPA's Superfund programs said the two spills are already proving to be a strain on the agency's resources.
"Our (on-scene coordinators) are getting stretched pretty thin," Vranka said. "Our primary interest is getting it under control and then we'll follow up with a mop-up and then enforcement options later."
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