LAUREL, Mont. — Crews cleaning up an oil spill on the Yellowstone River faced difficult conditions Tuesday as the scenic waterway rose above flood stage and stoked fears that surging currents could push crude into undamaged areas and back channels vital to the river’s prized fishery.
Conditions on the swollen Yellowstone have hampered efforts to find the cause of Friday’s break in the 12-inch pipeline that spilled an estimated 1,000 barrels of crude oil.
The river also has been flowing too swiftly for crews to reach some oiled areas, as forecasters said mountain snowmelt was adding to the high water levels. Officials speculated that the surge may push oil into areas that haven’t yet been damaged.
Much of the riverbank also is covered with dense underbrush, making it difficult to walk the shoreline. Most observations have been made through aerial flights.
One homeowner, Robert Castleberry, said he had been out of his house since Saturday because of dangerous fumes from oil that the river pushed across his yard and into the crawlspace beneath his house.
Castleberry’s wife suffers from heart disease and the fumes gave her difficulty breathing, he said. While he appreciated the company promising to cover the couple’s immediate expenses, the 64-year-old retired fuel truck driver was doubtful workers would be able to clean up the black, gooey film that laced through the underbrush along the river.
“Exxon’s been nothing but 100 percent with us,” he said. “But when you get into brush that thick, that’s going to be virtually impossible to clean.”
Company and federal officials said they have only seen oil about 25 miles downstream from the site of the break near Laurel. But Gov. Brian Schweitzer said he believes some has traveled hundreds of miles to North Dakota.
“At seven miles per hour, some oil is already in North Dakota. That’s a given,” Schweitzer said. “I’m asking everyone to get out there and report what you see on the river.”
Representatives of Exxon Mobil and the Environmental Protection Agency said they had no reports of oil beyond the town of Huntley.