Government asks Exxon to retool Yellowstone spill plan
BILLINGS, Mont, July 10
BILLINGS, Mont, July 10 (Reuters) - Federal regulators said on Sunday they want Exxon Mobil (XOM.N) to retool its preliminary plan to clean up oil spilled into the Yellowstone River in Montana from a ruptured pipe at the start of July.
A U.S. Environmental Protection Agency official, Steve Merritt, said three elements of the plan were incomplete. He said Exxon must revise how it will capture spilled oil, remove the broken pipe without causing pollution downstream, and restore the wildlife habitat and private property.
Merritt, the EPA's on-scene coordinator for the spill, said officials wanted Exxon to finish the revisions by "one week from today".
Exxon said it "will continue to work closely with the EPA on the draft work plan and will comply with this request," spokesman Pius Rolheiser said in a statement.
Details of the preliminary plan will not be released until the EPA and Montana approve it. Merritt said the government had given preliminary approval to several elements of the plan, including for disposing of hazardous waste and for sampling.
Exxon is facing an EPA-ordered deadline of September 9 to clean up a river renowned for its scenic beauty, near pristine waters and wealth of wildlife and fish.
The company has apologized for the spill and pledged to restore the Yellowstone. Mop-up is under way along shorelines but high water has prevented an inspection of the pipeline and damage downriver.
Exxon estimates that 42,000 gallons of crude were released during the accident. Record flows in the Yellowstone have delayed a probe of the damaged 12-inch pipeline, which was buried in the streambed.
Federal regulators estimate the oil has traveled 240 miles downstream from the site of the rupture, west of Billings, crossing near the south-central Montana community of Laurel.
Helicopter flights along the river corridor by government and Exxon officials showed oiled riverbanks, wetlands and cropland 70 miles downstream of the spill.
Water testing by the EPA on July 4 showed no detectable levels of three known carcinogens associated with crude oil, and air monitoring revealed no major health threats so far.
Yet at least five residents have been treated in hospital emergency rooms for symptoms like dizziness, nausea and respiratory distress linked to exposure to petrochemicals, according to the Montana Department of Environmental Quality.
Lisa Williams, contaminants specialist with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, said that biologists were monitoring a handful of oil-tainted wildlife, including Canada geese, a white pelican and a heron.
The company has logged nearly 300 calls to its hotline, including from 100 people volunteering for clean-up efforts. Exxon is responding to roughly 100 claims stemming from property, agriculture or health concerns, a statement said.
Handling of the spill has cooled relations between the oil giant and Montana, one of just two states whose constitutions guarantee a "clean, healthful environment."
Montana Governor Brian Schweitzer has pulled the state from a panel, including Exxon and EPA, overseeing the spill response. He said its closed meetings and withholding of documents from the public violated open-government laws.
Schweitzer opened a state office in Billings to respond to any health and property concerns. A trained soil scientist, he encouraged those affected by the spill to document damage and collect water and soil samples for testing.
While some landowners have praised Exxon for picking up the tab for everything from hotel rooms to livestock feed, others have expressed frustration and worry in the absence of a detailed timeline for cleaning their oil-fouled lands.
Kelly Goodman, who lives on riverside property homesteaded by her family over a century ago, said her livelihood has been disrupted by contamination of pastures and wetlands.
Goodman's sheep and horses have been confined to a small fenced area to prevent them from exposure to oil-stained grasses and tainted water. She said she has been unable to work the champion sheep-herding dogs she raises, shows and sells.
Goodman said she is also uneasy about wells that supply drinking water, and over the safety of crops fed by river water.
"I can't remember the last time I ate a decent meal or had a full night's rest," she said. "The main thing I would like is to have everything like it was." (Editing by Cynthia Johnston)
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