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Published: Tuesday, November 15, 2011, 6:49 p.m.

Pipelines at risk of failure in Montana, Wyoming

HELENA, Mont. -- Federal safety regulators disclosed problems Tuesday with oil and other hazardous liquid pipelines at seven major river crossings and hundreds of smaller crossings in Montana and northern Wyoming -- problems that could put the lines at increased risk of failure.
Problems found at the major river crossings must be fixed by spring or the companies that own them will face enforcement actions, said Chris Hoidal with the U.S. Department of Transportation.
That includes pipelines crossing the Missouri, Musselshell, Gallatin, Tongue and other rivers that are owned by three companies: Exxon Mobil, CHS and ConocoPhillips.
Many of the pipelines were installed decades ago in shallow trenches just a few feet deep beneath rivers and streams. Erosion caused in part by record flooding has since exposed the lines or left them buried under minimal cover. The consequences of one failing was highlighted by an Exxon Mobil pipeline break in July that spilled 1,000 barrels of crude into the Yellowstone River, fouling dozens of miles of riverbank.
"They've got to do something. If they can't fix them, then they will have to shut them down," said Hoidal, who oversees pipeline safety in 12 western states for the Transportation Department's Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration.
He characterized the problems at the major crossings as putting them at a significant risk of failure. Information on the smaller crossings still is under analysis, and Hoidal said repairs to those would be scheduled on a case-by-case basis.
Hoidal said he has instructed his inspectors to take a similar look at pipelines elsewhere in the West, but the most detailed information has been collected for Montana and portions of northern Wyoming within the Missouri River basin.
Work already has been completed on one of the Montana lines, ConocoPhillips' Glacier pipeline along Belt Creek in central Montana.
Other upgrades are planned in the next several months. That includes $15 million in additional work along Exxon Mobil's Silvertip line, according to information obtained from Hoidal's agency.
A 1,700-foot section of Silvertip was buried approximately 70 feet beneath the Yellowstone in September. Sections crossing Rock Creek and the Clark's Fork are due to be replaced by late January.
An industry representative said pipeline companies have been closely examining their lines since the summer flooding and are anxious to avoid a repeat of the Silvertip break, which costs Exxon an estimated $135 million for cleanup and repair work.
"The incentive for us is these spills cost a lot of money," said Dave Galt, executive director of the Montana Petroleum Association. "All of these are being addressed and the companies take that responsibility. We don't want releases into the water."
Federal inspectors worked with state officials and the pipeline companies to survey the crossings. Initial results were delivered Tuesday to Montana's Oil Pipeline Safety Review Council, established by Gov. Brian Schweitzer in response to the Yellowstone spill.
"As long as those get fixed before the next high water, I'll feel a lot better about it," said council member Richard Opper, director of the Montana Department of Environmental Quality.
The council will meet again in February. Opper said attention will turn next to gaps in regulations governing the pipeline industry.
Story tags » Major CompaniesEnvironmental IssuesPollution

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