EPA to pass oversight of ExxonMobil's 1,000-barrel oil spill in Montana's Yellowstone River to state, which will take over cleanup efforts

BILLINGS, Montana , September 9, 2011 () – EPA passing lead on Exxon spill to Montana, says bulk of cleanup of Yellowstone River done

The Environmental Protection Agency is planning to relinquish oversight of Exxon Mobil Corp.'s 1,000-barrel oil spill into the Yellowstone River, leaving the state to coordinate the remainder of the cleanup, federal and state officials said Thursday.

EPA's personnel in Montana could be gone by the end of the week, although the agency will continue monitoring the cleanup.

Exxon Mobil workers through Thursday had finished work on most river segments marred with crude from the July 1 pipeline break near Laurel, said Steve Merritt, the EPA's on-scene coordinator for the spill.

That includes 51 of the 61 river segments with heavy or moderate amounts of oil, Merritt said. There is no acreage or mileage figure for the impacted area, which includes riverbank, islands and side channels stretching along 97 miles of river ending near Hysham.

"They (Exxon Mobil) still have people out there to take care of the remaining segments," Merritt said. "If there are Clean Water Act concerns that warrant federal attention, we'll be back."

The EPA's transition out comes after the DEQ recently notified Exxon Mobil that the 42,000 gallon spill likely violated state pollution laws.

The violations include the unlawful discharge of crude oil into state waters without a permit, causing a visible oil sheen on waters and the unlawful presence of solid wastes such as crude oil on lands surrounding the river, according to the letter from DEQ enforcement division head John Arrigo.

No fines or other sanctions have yet been levied.

"It's clearly a violation. The way we like it is to work through all the cleanup issues before we think about any penalty issues," DEQ director Richard Opper said.

"Exxon honestly has been pretty good about agreeing to clean up requirements that both EPA and the state have asked them to do," he added.

In a response to the state's violation letter, Exxon Mobil Pipeline manager Gary Hartmann wrote in a Sept. 1 letter that the company reserved its right to contest the alleged violations.

But company spokeswoman Claire Hassett said in an email Thursday to The Associated Press that the company intends to comply with the cleanup goals set by the state and has submitted its plan to do so.

"Included in the plans are comprehensive sampling and analysis programs that will monitor surface water, ground water, sediments and soil targeting the cleanup areas," Hassett wrote.

Montana cleanup standards are stricter than federal rules. The state and Exxon Mobil are currently negotiating terms of what will be expected from the company.

EPA's Merritt said the federal agency will not close out its cleanup order for the spill until the state has issued its own order.

An estimated 620 Exxon Mobil contractors are working along dozens of miles of riverbank that were fouled by oil from the spill. That's down from more than 1,000 workers at the peak of the cleanup.

The number of federal employees overseeing the effort peaked at 25 people in early July.

DEQ deputy chief Tom Livers said the loss of the EPA's on-the-ground presence in Montana was not a major concern as the cleanup narrows to remaining areas with only light oil or oil staining on vegetation.

Daily operations would be coordinated between the Montana Department of Environmental Quality and Exxon Mobil Pipeline Co.

By Friday, officials said cleanup work on five more river segments with heavy to moderate oil could be completed. That would leave just five more where Exxon Mobil has not gotten owner permission to do the work, said Merritt, the EPA coordinator.

Exxon Mobil spokeswoman Hassett said the company would work with landowners to cleanup those segments once it has been granted access.

A spokesman for the federal pipeline safety agency handling the investigation into the spill said Thursday that no cause had been established.

Pictures released by the DEQ this week show that the pipeline was completely severed and not just punctured, but state officials said they could not tell from the photos if any piece of the pipeline was missing or if it was a single, clean break.

Inspectors from the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration have not been able to reach the pipeline for a close-up inspection.

"Factors associated with the flooding of the Yellowstone River, such as depth of water and current, continue to keep the pipeline inaccessible," PHMSA spokesman Damon Hill said. "PHMSA cannot provide an estimate on when its investigation will be completed."

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