Wildlife-rescue teams have yet to find significant numbers of oiled birds, fish or amphibians nearly a week after an Exxon Mobil Corp. pipeline burst beneath Montana's famed Yellowstone River, spilling up to 1,000 barrels of crude and soiling the lawns of many downstream landowners.
While oil has been spotted on the wing tips of some pelicans and a garter snake that was treated and safely returned, the spill's immediate impact appears to have been largely minimized thanks in part to the river's high flow.
But wildlife advocates said they remain concerned that oil deposits could cause long-term impacts to fish species including goldeye, sauger and channel catfish that frequent the river's calmer side streams, where the crude appears to be collecting, as well as the rare pallid sturgeon found further downstream.
"The entire food chain will be impacted in this important ecosystem," National Wildlife Federation (NWF) regional campaign coordinator Jennifer Pelej told reporters today, lamenting that the oil company's response has proved "disturbingly similar" to efforts after Gulf of Mexico and Michigan oil spills that were criticized by many locals.
While the river's torrid flow has broken most of the slick into streamers and smaller patches, the fast-moving water has also made it difficult to locate much of the oil that has settled.
"We can only wait and see," said Bruce Farling, executive director of the Montana chapter of Trout Unlimited. "We know that we're seeing oil as far as 40 miles downstream in flooded wheat fields near Pompey's Pillar. ... That's approaching the stretch of the river home to sturgeon."
While the spill occurred downstream of the river's prized trout fishery, the oil threatens an important transitional habitat between cold and warm waters, Farling said.
Jay Holcomb, director emeritus for the International Bird Rescue, which has partnered with Exxon on the cleanup effort, said the river's rapid flow has made the area inhospitable to most waterfowl, sparing many that would normally be drawn to the river's placid backwaters.
"We have sighted hundreds of clean and healthy Canada geese and mallard ducks, but no oiled birds," he said in a blog entry yesterday. "All in all, this is not the worst spill we have been involved with. But it's still a spill, and we will continue to monitor wildlife along the river as long as there is any risk."
The long-term impacts of the spill are unknown.
Scientists at Montana State University said they will collect post-spill samples of fish diversity and abundance and compare them to samples taken earlier this summer and in previous years to gauge any lasting impacts.
University biologists said they will also provide Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks with the locations of any sick turtles and fish or fish kills that are found.
"In the weeks and months ahead, we will be looking for any unusual changes in the river's natural environment and any impacts on the species of fish we would expect to find at this time of year," said Al Zale, an ecology professor at the university. "Some species or ages of fish may be more susceptible to this type of pollution than others."
NWF senior scientist Doug Inkley said today that "most at risk" from the oiled river would be "relatively immobile wildlife" such as turtles and salamanders as well as muskrats. Inkley called for "an accurate, independent estimate of the spill size" to help determine its potential long-term ramifications for wildlife and human health.
Gary Pruessing, president of ExxonMobil Pipeline Co., on Wednesday said state officials continue to comb the river for affected wildlife and have considered taking soil samples from below the river. He said there is no indication yet that oil has harmed fish but that reliable data is also scarce.
"Some oil will break apart and be biodegraded," he said. "Some will be pushed to the shoreline. That's the area we have to address."
Reported health problems
Much of the spill's impact so far has been felt by landowners along the 20-mile stretch of river immediately downstream of Laurel, Mont., the site of the spill.
The Billings Gazette yesterday reported that some landowners on the river have complained of headaches and nausea, with some seeking hospital care.
Oil coating the grass and ground in some areas has forced ranchers to relocate livestock for fear that they could eat contaminated forage, said Bill Kennedy, Yellowstone County commissioner.
U.S. EPA last night reported that air monitoring for volatile organic compounds and hydrogen sulfide have shown no detections in ambient air along the Yellowstone River. Additional sampling for benzene has turned up no detections between Laurel and Billings.
The agency said it had also not detected any petroleum hydrocarbons in the river between Laurel and Miles City that exceed drinking water standards in the region. Early tests also showed that river water poses no threat to agricultural use.
But Exxon yesterday said it has now detected isolated patches of oil as far as 80 miles downstream of the spill site, more than twice as far as it had earlier acknowledged.
The company said it has more than 500 people involved in the spill response, with more than 300 yesterday monitoring river conditions. About 14 miles of boom and 400,000 absorbent pads are on site to contain and sop up oil, though much of the river continues to be inaccessible due to the rapid flow and high water line.
Montana Sen. Jon Tester (D) after touring affected parts of the river yesterday told the Gazette that it appeared Exxon has done its best to respond and contain the oil. But he repeated a demand he made earlier this week to Exxon CEO Rex Tillerson that the company cover all costs related to the cleanup.
The state's senior senator, Max Baucus (D), also sent staffers to tour the affected area and met face-to-face with EPA chief Lisa Jackson yesterday for a briefing on human health and cleanup concerns. Gov. Brian Schweitzer (D-Mont.), meanwhile, won kudos from environmentalists today for pulling out of the unified command effort over concerns about the veracity of Exxon's communications about the extent of the spill (see related story).
Reporter Elana Schor contributed.