July 6, 2011
Kendall Van Dyk, (406) 690-1728,
Bruce Farling, (406) 360-6208,
Trout Unlimited’s Statement on the ExxonMobil Oil Spill
in the Yellowstone River near Billings, Mont.
Trout Unlimited deplores the spill of oil, equal
to at least 1,000 barrels, into one of America’s
most treasured rivers, the Yellowstone.
On July 1, an ExxonMobil pipeline running
underneath the Yellowstone River outside
of Laurel, Mont., burst, spewing a reported
1,000 barrels of oil into one of the nation’s
favorite free-flowing rivers. Staff from the
Montana state resource agencies are now
trying to assess the damages to people
living near the river, communities such as
Laurel adjacent to it, as well as the fish and
wildlife populations sustained by it. So far,
we do not know the extent of the damage
to this internationally revered river, known for its origins in Yellowstone National Park, beautiful scenic vistas,
and blue-ribbon quality trout fishing. As stewards of cold, clean, fishable water, Trout Unlimited and especially
staff from its state council, Montana Trout Unlimited, are monitoring the situation and will do so as long as
there is oil in the river.
We call on ExxonMobil, owner of the damaged pipeline, to work with the State of Montana and the EPA to
fully assess all damages to individuals, communities and fish and wildlife in the watershed. Once a full and
complete assessment is finished, we urge ExxonMobil to fully compensate all damaged parties and make
every possible effort to restore fish and wildlife resources destroyed by the spill. We further recommend that
ExxonMobil work with the state to assess and improve the safety of all the company’s pipeline crossings in
Montana. TU believes it is reasonable to ensure that all gas and oil pipelines in the state be designed using the
best available technology. This accident proves that we cannot be too diligent when it comes to protecting our
water resources and all that depend on them.
The stretch of river between Laurel and Billings, which appears to have experienced the worst impacts of
the spill, is downstream of the famed blue-ribbon trout reach of the upper Yellowstone River. While this
may provide limited comfort, this stretch of water is a transition zone from cold to warm-water fish species,
meaning it contains some rainbow and brown trout populations as well as additional sportfish that are important
to Montana anglers, including native
sauger, goldeye and channel catfish.
Likewise, this stretch is home to locally
important non-native game fish such as
smallmouth bass and walleye.
While the most well-known stretch of the
Yellowstone has escaped this catastrophe,
Montana’s anglers are not without
concern for what is a well-utilized fishery.
Of particular interest to TU and other
conservation-minded sportsmen and women
is a population of one of North America’s
rarest fishes, the pallid sturgeon, which
occurs downstream in the Yellowstone
River below Miles City. Potential effects of the spill on this endangered native will be influenced by the spread
and persistence of the oil plume. On July 5, the river was running at 55,000 cubic feet per second, just below
flood stage. TU volunteers discovered that oil is now evident in wheat fields at least 40 miles downriver near
a state wildlife management area and the Pompey’s Pillar National Monument, a landmark of the Lewis and
It is too early to tell, however, what impacts the spill will have on the Yellowstone’s fishery. Owing to intense
flooding, both impact monitoring and the clean-up response have been significantly hampered by dangerous
river conditions. Aerial observations and anecdotal reports suggest that back channels and flooded fields are
seeing the largest quantities of oil, causing a pungent stench reported by many landowners. As the flooding
recedes, this toxic oil could easily be deposited in important shallow-water spawning and rearing habitat.
There are also concerns of bio-accumulation for predators that feed on fish such as eagles, osprey, and
kingfishers. Toxic components of oil, such as benzene, could also threaten macro invertebrates and larval fish.
Oil deposition may harm other wildlife such as amphibians, turtles, waterfowl, mink, muskrats and beavers.
The extent and severity of these impacts depends largely on where and when the oil is deposited, and how
extensive the clean-up efforts are. Both Trout Unlimited and Montana Trout Unlimited will continue to hold
ExxonMobil accountable for the damage it caused and for cleaning up the spill.
What has happened in the Yellowstone River demonstrates the significant risks of allowing energy development
and pipeline infrastructure so close to America’s treasured places to hunt and fish. The type of crossing
technique used for this pipeline did not employ the best and safest technology available. The pipeline,
according to ExxonMobil sources, was buried in depositional material in the riverbed. This rendered the site
prone to hydraulic scouring, thereby potentially exposing the pipe to material moving down the river in the
high flows Montana is experiencing this summer. The company has stated it still has not determined what went
wrong with this pipeline. However, company spokesmen said that safer alternatives could have been deployed
at this site.
This week’s events come as Congress gears up to debate funding for the nation’s natural resource agencies, and
during a year where we have seen some elected officials in Congress move to weaken our country’s fundamental
natural resource protections such as the Clean Water Act. This spill highlights the need to maintain these vital
resource protections, as well as the need for effective conservation programs that protect fish habitat and restore
streams that have been damaged through years of irresponsible use. We call on Congress to recognize these
important protections and conservation investments as essential to ensure that plentiful fishing and hunting
opportunities in the nation’s most treasured landscapes and watersheds remain pristine for future generations.
Trout Unlimited is a private, non-profit organization with more than 140,000 members dedicated to conserving,
protecting and restoring North America’s trout and salmon fisheries and their watersheds.