#5: The Yellowstone and Upper Missouri Rivers

These two iconic, hard-working western rivers have been repeatedly sullied by spills related to oil and gas production. The future is looking like more of the same–on steroids.

Seems like just last summer that I was paddling the Yellowstone River below Laurel, Montana, assessing the damage from the Silvertip Pipeline spill. Actually, it was the summer of 2011, not long after the ruptured pipeline spewed 63,000 gallons of crude into the river and sullied the next 85 miles downstream.

yellowstone-river canoe oil pipeline

The author paddling the Yellowstone River. Photo by Reid Morth

That July I drifted down the burgeoning flow, looking at the iridescent bathtub ring of petroleum marking the grasses and willows, going past campsites I had spent nights in with my family, where my young children built forts out of driftwood, hunted for agates and petrified wood in the gravels, or caught frogs in pools. I was there as a reporter, documenting the effects, but also as a paddler in love with a river, and as a father thinking about his legacy.

Now it's happened again. Winter this time. Another pipeline, 20 miles upstream of Glendive, Montana. On January 17 the Poplar Pipeline, owned by Bridger Pipeline LLC of Wyoming, broke beneath the river, spilling an estimated 30,000 gallons of oil into the Yellowstone. Because thick ice covers most of the river, and the current is moving better than three miles per hour, recovery is problematic, to say the least. Effects are expected to reach at least 90 miles downstream, across the border into North Dakota and to the confluence with the Missouri. Within days of the spill, drinking water in Glendive was tainted with benzene, a carcinogen.


Cleanup teams attempt to access spilled oil from the Glendive Pipeline in January. Photo by Thomas Lee. American Rivers reports: “At the peak of the cleanup, a company spokesman told the Glendive Ranger-Review that it was recovering one teaspoon of oil every ten minutes from holes that it cut in the ice. At that pace, it would take 1,753 years to clean up the spill.”

Recovery crews are in evidence, but, as with the Silvertip spill in 2011, their efforts are largely cosmetic, and serve more as a public relations tool than effective clean up. After the 2011 spill, Montana politicians promised more rigorous inspections and more stringent regulations. Unfortunately, that has been more talk than reality. When the Poplar Pipeline was last inspected, in 2011, it was buried beneath 8 feet of river sediment. Three years later, when the spill broke loose, it was discovered that 120 feet of the pipeline lay completely exposed to gouging ice floes and floods.

silvertip spill Oil Spill Yellowstone River

Workers attempt to clean up oil after the 2011 Silvertip spill, near Laurel, Mont. (AP Photo/Julie Jacobson)

As if to punctuate the threat to the Yellowstone and Missouri Rivers in oil country, another pipeline spill near Williston, North Dakota on Jan. 6 leaked some 3 million gallons of toxic brine into tributaries of the Missouri River. That brine reached the Missouri River and underscores the environmental cost of doing business in the oil patch. A New York Times report found that between 2006 and 2014, 18.4 million gallons of oil and chemicals have spilled or leaked in North Dakota alone.

These recent, high-profile spills reveal a chronic problem of national and international scope that often festers off the public radar. There are 2.5 million miles of pipelines spider-webbing across the United States. More than 60,000 miles of that carries petroleum. In Montana alone, pipelines cross under bodies of water in 88 locations. There are hundreds of leaks and ruptures every year. Slow leaks might go months without detection, while larger events like the 2010 spill on the Kalamazoo River in Michigan dumped 840,000 gallons into the flow, despite being quickly detected.

Screen Shot 2015-02-19 at 11.43.54 AM

Much of the U.S. pipeline infrastructure is more than forty years old. The Poplar Pipeline, built in 1967, is a case in point. Only a small fraction of the system is regularly inspected and regulations are generally lax. Often as not, the responsibility for inspecting pipelines falls to the pipeline companies themselves.

"That isn't like the fox guarding the hen house," said Carl Weimer of the Pipeline Safety Trust, "it's like the fox designing the hen house."

Looming over this controversy is the possibility of the Keystone XL pipeline project, slated to cross both the Missouri and Yellowstone Rivers. Keystone XL would cross under the Missouri just downstream of Ft. Peck Reservoir, and the Yellowstone very near the recent pipeline breach, some twenty miles upstream of Glendive.

Industry representatives reassure the public that the pipeline will employ state-of-the-art technology, and will be buried a full 25 feet below the river channel. That sounds pretty foolproof, until you listen to hydrologists who have documented 'scour holes' after spring flooding on the Missouri River that excavate more than fifty feet of river bottom.

Photo by Aaron Schmidt

Photo by Aaron Schmidt

Engineering studies based on decades of pipeline safety research predict that there will be 91 significant spills along the Keystone XL in a 50-year horizon. Their worst case projections for pipeline breaks under the Missouri or Yellowstone Rivers range from 5 to 7 million gallons of tar sands oil, orders of magnitude greater than any spill to date.

Pipeline supporters tout better technology and stress that recent spills should spur us to do better. Both history and current events cast doubt on such platitudes. In 2014, 73 significant pipeline accidents have been reported, and the data isn't all in yet.

As Dena Hoff, a rancher near the Poplar Pipeline spill, recently observed, "There's only two kinds of pipelines . . . the ones that are leaking, and the ones that are going to leak."

For me, it's personal. The Yellowstone River is where I'd like my ashes spread after I die. My children have grown up camping along its banks, swimming its currents, playing in mud wallows. Despite the fact that it is used and abused along much of its length – diverted by irrigators, siphoned off by towns and cities, polluted by agricultural runoff – it remains a wild and untamed flow. When I'm on it, I forget the nearby highway or railroad, the steam plants and sugar beet refineries I pass by. The river takes over. It was here long before we started messing with it, and it will flow on long after we're gone.

But when I paddled those tainted miles a few summers back, and when I think of the mid-winter spill of this year, I can't shake the feeling of visiting a friend with cancer. A friend whose head is bald, whose body is emaciated, and whose reserves are low. More and more, paddling the Yellowstone feels like that bedside visit, like we are attending to a friend in dire straits, a friend whom we have seen in the full bloom of health, but with whom, now, there is little to say and only our companionship to offer.

–Read our digital feature about paddling the Missouri River through the Bakken oilfield.

This story is part of a C&K series covering the world’s ten most threatened paddling runs. Read about the other runs, and stay tuned as more are released:

#6 – Alaska’s Susitna River: World-class whitewater in the shadow of Denali

#7 – The Zambezi River: ‘Arguably the finest one-day whitewater rafting trip on the planet’

#8 – Ecuador’s Jondachi River: A whitewater paradise in the Amazon rainforest

#9 – Yukon’s Peel Watershed: A canoe-tripping haven

#10 – Colorado’s Yampa River: A desert rafting classic

Photo by Aaron Schmidt

Photo by Aaron Schmidt