BILLINGS — The state of Montana has cut its ties to a joint Exxon Mobil-government command post overseeing an oil spill in the Yellowstone River after the governor said the group was defying state open government laws by denying public access.
The move underscores mounting tensions between the state and one of the world's largest energy companies over its handling of the pipeline rupture that spewed an estimated 42,000 gallons of oil into the scenic river.
Meanwhile, U.S. Rep. Denny Rehberg of Montana said the House Subcommittee on Railroads, Pipelines and Hazardous Materials will hold the first congressional hearing on the spill and on pipeline safety Thursday.
Security guards working for Exxon Mobil Corp. have closel guarded access to the command post on the second floor of the Crowne Plaza Hotel in Billings, where the Envirnomental Protection Agency and other federal agencies also are stationed. Attempts by The Associated Press to talk to government officials there have been denied.
Democratic Gov. Brian Schweitzer said leaving the command center would not impede the state's ability to respond to the spill.
"The state will no longer have a presence at the Crowne Plaza because Exxon Mobil tells us they can't respect the open government laws we have in Montana," Schweitzer told The Associated Press. "I can't allow state employees to be in meetings at the Crowne Plaza talking about this cleanup without having it open."
He established an alternate state-run coordination center Friday at state offices in Billings. One of the first orders of business was telling landowners along the river to collect samples of oil-stained water, soil and grass that they can use as evidence if they have to file claims against Exxon Mobil.
Schweitzer brought hundreds of sample jars to hand out at the opening, which attracted about 100 people. About two dozen raised their hands when Schweitzer asked if there were landowners present.
He criticized Exxon Mobil for its response, pointing out discrepancies in the company's reports of how long it took to shut down the pipeline and saying company officials were downplaying damage to wildlife.
He spoke in front of a projected image of a toad sitting in what appeared to be oily marshland
The governor also sent a letter to top Exxon Mobil officials Friday requesting the company's data on the type of crude oil that was in the pipeline, including the last three years of analysis on the oil's viscosity, volatility and toxicity.
Exxon Mobil spokesman Alan Jeffers said the company was not in charge of the command post, a joint operation led by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
"We do not run the unified command. We are providing security services for the unified command, just like we are providing cleanup serves for the unified command," he said.
Authorities in Yellowstone County also said they would ease travel restrictions near the spill site after some area residents and members of the media complained about a lack of access.
Those restrictions at times have been enforced by security contractors working for Exxon Mobil, who turned away reporters or blocked them from areas where cleanup work was going on.
"We have been frustrated since the spill took place because we've burned up time waiting for Exxon officials or other authorities to respond to our request for information and access," said Steve Prosinski, editor of the Billings Gazette. "We realize cleanup is their primary focus, but they have a responsibility through us to communicate how the cleanup is going."
Yellowstone County Sheriff Mike Linder said Thursday that his deputies were working in conjunction with the company but had not ceded any authority to it. Linder said the restrictions were meant to protect public safety.
"They'll let us know when there is a safe time or not a safe time," Linder said of Exxon Mobil. "We're working together, is what we're doing. If it's a safety issue, we will address it. If it's not, we will work with them to make sure everybody has access."
Jeffers said the company was trying to be transparent and has worked over the week to improve media access to cleanup areas.
The EPA has said indoor air, cropland soils and residential wells downstream of the July 1 oil spill will be tested for contamination after residents raised concerns about hazards from the crude oil that poured into the watercourse. Contractors for the EPA and Exxon Mobil were to collect air samples beginning Thursday or Friday, and the results would take about a week, said EPA on-scene coordinator Steve Merritt.
EPA and local officials said they do not expect to find significant health dangers but were acting as a precaution. Some residents in oil-stained areas have complained of nausea, dizziness and shortness of breath that have lingered for days.
Crude oil contains dangerous chemicals including benzene and hydrogen sulfide. But officials said much of those substances would have evaporated quickly after the initial spill, meaning the long-term health risk is low.
Air sampling along the river has not detected either of the chemicals, and water sampling shows no petroleum hydrocarbons that exceed drinking water standards, the EPA said in a written statement late Thursday.
Soil from agricultural areas and water from hundreds or residential wells also will be tested in coming days, Merritt said. Exxon Mobil's contractors will collect duplicate samples so their results can be verified by government scientists, he said.
An estimated 1,000 barrels of oil fouled areas along the scenic Yellowstone since a 12-inch pipeline broke under the Yellowstone River near the south-central Montana town of Laurel.
There have been confirmed reports of oil as far as 80 miles downstream, although most is concentrated in the first 30 miles, according to the EPA. Spokesman Matthew Allen said the agency didn't expect to find much more oil beyond the 80 mile mark, aside from "small, isolated quantities."
An estimated 350 federal and Exxon Mobil contractors were cleaning contaminated areas of riverbank by Thursday, said Exxon Mobil Pipeline Co. President Gary Pruessing.
"It's not soiled everywhere but there are pockets of it," Pruessing said. "It's going to take a while as we try to get our hands around where the contamination is and then clean it up."
The cause of the pipeline rupture remains under investigation, but the prevailing theory has been that the raging Yellowstone eroded the river bottom and exposed the line to damaging rocks or debris.
The U.S. Department of Transportation documents stated that the company reported June 1 that the line was buried under "at least 12 feet of cover" where it crosses the river near Laurel. A DOT spokesman on Thursday clarified that figure refers to the section of pipeline beneath the bank of the river.
The depth of the section beneath the central portion of the riverbed was measured by the company in December at 5 to 8 feet. Determining its depth when the pipe failed will be part of the federal investigation into the spill.
The depth was measured after officials in Laurel raised concerns about the safety of the pipe because of erosion along that stretch of the river. In 2009, a Williston Basin Interstate Pipeline Co. natural gas line that crossed in almost the same spot ruptured during high waters.
Federal regulators have ordered Exxon Mobil to make safety improvements before re-starting its 20-year-old pipeline, including re-burying the line as much as 25 to 30 feet deep to protect against external damage and assess risk where it crosses a waterway.