New oil spill estimated at 420-630 gallons at FX Energy's field in Montana, about 350 miles from ExxonMobil Pipeline spill in Yellowstone River, comes at time when state's oil, pipeline operations under scrutiny

HELENA, Montana , July 18, 2011 () – A new oil spill involving hundreds of gallons of crude has been discovered in Montana 350 miles from where cleanup crews are mopping up a larger one on the Yellowstone River.

The amount spilled at the FX Drilling Co. oil field in a remote corner of the Blackfeet Indian Reservation appears to be much less than the estimated 42,000 gallons that emptied into the Yellowstone River earlier this month. But the northwestern Montana spill comes at a time when all pipeline and oil operations in the state are under scrutiny as a result of the larger Exxon Mobil Corp. pipeline break.

Andy Pierce, vice president of FX Energy Inc., the Salt Lake-based parent company of FX Drilling, estimated that between 10 to 15 barrels, or 420 to 630 gallons, leaked from a broken line as a result of the earth shifting during flooding in the area.

Indian Country Environmental Associates, the organization heading the cleanup, put the amount between 15 and 20 barrels, or up to 840 gallons.

The broken flow line between two oil wells may have been leaking for 10 to 14 days before a neighboring landowner reported it last Tuesday.

"You get flow line leaks from time to time, but they generally get spotted right away," Pierce said. "The reason this went on as long as it did is because the surface is tough to get around on right now."

A response crew hired by the tribe and paid for by the oil company is cleaning up the oil that has flowed nearly a mile down a ravine to where the Cut Bank Creek runs. Pierce said he doesn't believe oil contaminated the creek, which connects to the Marias River, but the head of the cleanup crew said that at least some crude escaped to the water.

Gabe Renville, the senior environmental scientist for Indian Country Environmental Associates, said whatever oil made it to Cut Bank Creek has washed away and there are no visible signs of the spill on the shoreline.

A 4-foot berm was built where the coulee meets the Cut Bank Creek and a 50-foot boom skirt with liner has been looped around the area to prevent any further contamination, his agency said. Oil has coated the soil and vegetation in and around the ravine, and there are 11 standing pools of water slicked with oil.

The coulee is steep and treacherous, with rattlesnakes and scorpions hiding under rocks. The dozen workers are unable to get any heavy equipment into the area to carry the oil out, meaning the excavating and transport has to be done by hand and all-terrain vehicles, Renville said.

"When you first look, you wonder how you're going to get it out of the coulee," Renville said. "One thing's for certain, we'll get it out."

There has been no public notice of the leak since it was discovered July 12. A response plan by Renville's organization said a meeting between the tribe, the Environmental Protection Agency and the federal Bureau of Land Management was held the next day. The state of Montana was not notified until Friday, according to the state Department of Environmental Quality.

Because the spill happened on tribal land, the state has no jurisdiction, DEQ spokeswoman Lisa Peterson said.

EPA spokeswoman Wendy Thomi referred calls to the agency's Helena office, where messages weren't immediately returned. A message left with the Blackfeet tribe's environmental department also wasn't immediately returned.

Most of FX Energy's operations are concentrated on natural gas exploration and production in Poland, but the company says on its website that 94 percent of its total oil production comes from the 10,000-acre Cut Bank field.

Some 350 miles away in south-central Montana, workers removed about 100 barrels of oil from the broken Exxon Mobil pipeline in the Yellowstone River and EPA officials say they believe the pipe no longer poses a threat to releasing any more oil.

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