Carcinogen Benzene Found in Yellowstone River After Oil Spill

Residents of Eastern Montana were finally able to use water from their faucets again late last week, after a breach in the Poplar oil pipeline January 17 caused thousands of gallons of crude oil to leak into the Yellowstone River, contaminating local water supplies. 

Several days following the oil spill, officials detected high levels of benzene, a known cancer-causing chemical, in public water supplies and issued an alert to residents not to use water for drinking or cooking.

The break in the Poplar pipeline allowed more than 40,000 gallons of crude oil into the water of the Yellowstone River. Benzene was detected in the area’s water in a range of 10 to 15 parts per billion. Ranges above 5 parts per billion is considered a long-term health risk.

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According to a January 24 incident update by the Montana Department of Environmental Quality, no benzene was detected in the air.

Investigators are still trying to determine what caused the breach, but so far only know that it occurred on January 17, most likely in a length of approximately 50 feet of exposed pipeline on the river bed near Glendive, Montana.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) said the levels of benzene detected were much higher than the recommended levels for long-term consumption , and an advisory was issued to more than 6,000 residents. Initially, the CDC said the contamination did not pose a short-term health hazard.

During preliminary monitoring the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) said there was no cause for concern. However, residents began noticing a smell, similar to diesel fuel, coming from their tap water, before the advisory was issued.

The water treatment plant in the area of Glendive operated until last Sunday afternoon, 24 hours after the Wyoming-based pipeline operator Bridget Pipeline discovered the spill.

Residents were allowed to resume drinking water Thursday, after relying on bottled water for several days.

High concentrations of benzene can cause potentially serious health problems, including digestion issues, vomiting, anemia, leukemia and other cancers.

Internal documents of several major oil companies, released last month by the Center for Public Integrity as part of lawsuits filed against the companies, have suggested a link between benzene exposure and childhood leukemia.

Cleanup Hampered By Ice

Government officials and the pipeline company struggled to come up with an effective way to recover the crude oil, most of which was trapped beneath the ice covering the Yellowstone River.

Officials initially faced many problems before cleaning the water, including not having the right equipment to test the water and detect contamination along with communication the water advisory to residents. Many residents reported hearing about the water problems through friends or news sites, not the official advisory.

The company provided 10,000 gallons of drinking water per day to the Glendive area during the water advisory period. It also added filters to the city treatment plan to protect against further contamination to the water supply.

The full scope of the environmental damage caused by the spill could take months to determine, considering the river is home to fish, used for irrigation, boating and recreation.

Oil sheens have been spotted as far away as 25 miles from the site of the broken pipeline and a state of emergency was issued for two counties along the Yellowstone River.

The Poplar pipeline runs from Canada to Baker, Montana, picking up oil from several sites along Montana and North Dakota. It was constructed in the 1950s. The company said the section beneath Yellowstone that was breached was replaced sometime during the 1960s or early 1970s.

This is the second large oil spill into the Montana’s Yellowstone River in less than four years.


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