BOZEMAN, Mont (Reuters) - Montana's governor withdrew his state on Thursday from participation in a joint command team directing the cleanup of oil spilled from a burst Exxon Mobil pipeline, saying citizens "can't get straight answers" from the company.
In establishing the state's own incident command center in Billings, just downstream from Friday night's spill on the Yellowstone River, Governor Brian Schweitzer cited what he characterized as a lack of public transparency by Exxon.
Schweitzer said Exxon had restricted reporters, and even some state environmental officials, from joint command sessions in violation of Montana's open-meetings law. He also said the company has been too slow in responding to citizen queries about the spill.
"When Montana citizens call a hotline and Exxon Mobil doesn't get back to them, that's unacceptable," Schweitzer told Reuters by telephone.
The rupture of a 12-inch Exxon pipeline carrying crude oil to refineries in Billings dumped up to 1,000 barrels of oil into one of America's most pristine rivers about 150 miles downstream from Yellowstone National Park.
A joint unified command organization consisting of the state, Exxon and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency was set up after the spill to oversee efforts to assess damage, conduct cleanups and provide information to the public.
Exxon Mobil spokesman Alan Jeffers denied the company had sought to curb access to unified command meetings or information, saying the EPA was in charge. He said the company was doing its utmost to answer questions from the public.
"We're doing our best to respond as fast as possible to everybody who has been impacted by this spill," he said.
Schweitzer urged land owners and other members of the public affected by the spill to begin documenting damage themselves by taking their own videos, collecting soil samples and pulling together necessary paperwork for making claims.
"Right now, we can't get straight answers from Exxon engineers. Imagine what we'll get from their lawyers," he said.
Among those seeking answers are Henry and Kit Nilson, a retired couple whose riverfront property just downstream from the spill site near the town of Laurel was soaked with crude.
"Everything is coated with oil. It will never be the same," Kit Nilson, 67, told Reuters of land that has been in their family for 130 years. Five days after the accident, no one from Exxon or the government had been to her property, she said.
"You want to give everybody the benefit of the doubt, but from our standpoint, this has not been handled right," she said. "We had a million questions and none have been answered. It's been very frustrating."
In response to complaints at a public meeting hosted by the EPA near Billings on Wednesday night, Jeffers said Exxon had assigned more employees to its telephone hotline.
He also said the company sent claims adjusters to the public meeting and had contacted every one of the landowners, now numbering about 80, who had called to report oil contamination on their property.
The EPA issued a statement saying the agency was continuing to direct the spill response and "will continue to work hand-in-hand with the state of Montana, other federal agencies, and local government to ensure the spill is cleaned up and the environment restored."
The investigation into the cause of the rupture has focused on the possibility that raging high water from a season of heavy rains and record snowmelt washed away some of the riverbed around the buried pipe, exposing it to debris swept through the channel.
Federal officials said shoreline contamination has been observed over an area stretching at least 240 miles downstream from the spill site.
But dangerous river conditions have so far prevented environmental inspection teams from reaching most of the inlets, back channels and other shoreline areas where much of the oil would likely collect, and where fish would seek refuge from high water, said Robert Gibson, a spokesman for the state Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks.
Reporting by Laura Zuckerman; Writing by Steve Gorman; Editing by Cynthia Johnston