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Looking for Arctic oil spill lessons along banks of the Yellowstone River

Patti Epler
Oil spill containment operations under way in Montana after a Yellowstone River pipeline rupture.
ExxonMobil Corp. photo
An oil spill containment worker along the Yellowstone River in Montana works July 5 to clean up after a July 1 ExxonMobil pipeline rupture.
ExxonMobil Corp. photo
Oil spill containment workers clean up oil along the Yellowstone River in Montana on July 4.
ExxonMobil Corp. photo

Alaska Department of Natural Resources Commissioner Dan Sullivan is asking federal regulators to rethink their insistence that ConocoPhillips put an oil pipeline under a North Slope river channel in light of the recent oil spill on the Yellowstone River in Montana from an under-river pipeline.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers rejected Conoco's plan to build a bridge across the Nigliq channel in the National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska as part of its so-called CD-5 project. The project would link the new development with existing infrastructure at the nearby Alpine oil field. The Corps said a pipeline under the river was better for the environment than a road and bridge to support the pipeline in the Colville River delta area that is a world class waterfowl nesting and gathering area.

The Corps is in the midst of considering public comment on its findings. State and congressional leaders have been working with federal officials to resolve the situation and get a permit issued for the project, which is expected to provide hundreds of construction jobs.

The Silvertip oil pipeline, owned by Exxon Mobil, ruptured July 1 near Billings, Mont., spilling about 1,000 barrels of oil into the Yellowstone River. Cleanup crews are still mopping up the crude which has been found more than 200 miles downstream.

In a letter Wednesday to the Corps' district commander, Col. Reinhard Koenig, Sullivan said the rupture of the Silvertip pipeline reinforced the state's belief that an above-ground river crossing was best. That way oil field workers and people from the village of Nuiqsut who might be using the road could alert the company to any problems including leaks.

"The Yellowstone spill provides lessons important for protecting the environment and reducing operational risks at the Nigliq crossing," Sullivan said.

Sullivan's letter echoes an April report by the state's chief pipeline engineer, Louis Kozisek, who emphasized that the most important issue is making sure the pipeline maintains its integrity for the long term. He pointed out that many North Slope pipelines are corroding and leaking and that burying a pipeline under a river is not the ideal maintenance situation. And, he added, as facilities age, oil companies are inclined to spend less money on maintenance so a line that is lass expensive to manage is best.

Kozisek's report also prompted deputy Interior Secretary David Hayes to send a letter to Koenig. "An undetected leak in a pipeline underlying the extremely sensitive Colville River could lead to environmentally catastrophic results," Hayes wrote.

But Eric Myers, policy director of the Alaska Audubon Society which has been closely watching development plans in the area, cautioned against comparing what happened in Montana with the situation on the Colville River. It's a little like apples and oranges, he said.

Myers said reports of the Yellowstone River spill seem clear that mistakes by the operator combined with an inappropriate design caused the spill. The Exxon pipeline was barely below the river bed, he said.

And, Myers said, the biggest concern about the Conoco proposal at CD-5 is that a permanent road would "effectively create dike across the upper Colville River delta and disrupt the surface flow of water which is vital to the long-term maintenance and health of the Delta's wetlands habitat."

"If the oil industry can't safely develop a short stretch of pipeline under a small river channel onshore then there is hardly reason to believe it can safely transport oil produced offshore in subsurface pipeline across great distances across areas that are subject to scour by pack ice," he said.

Contact Patti Epler at patti(at)alaskadispatch.com