HELENA — Crews reported being a third of the way through the cleanup of a northwestern Montana oil spill Tuesday, as the chairman of the Blackfeet Indian tribe called on state and congressional leaders to ensure that energy companies don't shirk their responsibilities in future spills.
Up to 840 gallons of crude spilled from a broken flow line at an oil field FX Energy Inc. operates on the Blackfeet Indian Reservation before the company discovered and patched the break in June. But the company never reported the spill. It spread almost a mile down a steep ravine and into Cut Bank Creek before a neighboring landowner reported it nearly a month later, on July 12.
About a dozen people are excavating oil-stained soil and draining contaminated pools by hand, as the ravine is so steep and rugged that crews are unable to use machines to help them with the cleanup.
They are putting the soil into 2,000-pound bags and the oil-slicked water into barrels, and lowering both to staging areas at the bottom of the canyon on the shore of the Cut Bank Creek. Workers have collected eight barrels and eight bags of waste, said Gabe Renville, senior environmental scientist for Indian County Environmental Associates.
The next problem workers must face is how to get it out of the remote corner of the reservation, he said.
"We're moving along, but we'll have some challenges ahead of us as to how to get our contaminated soil out of the canyon," Renville said.
The site of the cleanup is a high canyon marked by cliffs, switchbacks and waterfalls. Plans are in the works to position a crane at the top of the coulee, attach a long cable to it and drag the barrels and bags up the side. But others involved in the cleanup will have to sign off before that plan can move ahead, Renville said.
Draining and mucking out the numerous spring-fed pools contaminated with oil is expected to continue into next week, if the conditions are right, Renville said.
Once the cleanup is completed, remediation begins. Workers will have to restore what they've disturbed, such as the staging areas and makeshift road at the bottom of the canyon, Renville said.
"We'll replace rocks and restore it back to the natural landscaping as much as possible," he said.
Officials are unsure how much oil spilled into the creek, which connects with the Marias River and ultimately the Missouri River. It is unclear whether the spill has had any effect on wildlife. Workers have found two dead birds, but they did not know whether that was related.
The Environmental Protection Agency is investigating why Salt Lake City-based FX Energy did not report the spill when it happened.
Willie Sharp Jr., chairman of the Blackfeet tribe, sent letters Tuesday to Democratic Sens. Max Baucus and Jon Tester of Montana, along with state Attorney General Steve Bullock, saying he wants them to make sure such spills aren't ignored in the future.
Sharp called on the state and congressional leaders to order all oil and gas producers operating in Montana to attend a mandatory meeting to remind the producers of their responsibilities in the spills such as the one on the reservation and a separate one earlier this month in the Yellowstone River.
"Producers of hydro-chemicals in the state of Montana would hear exactly their responsibilities and would have no excuse in the future to not report, underreport or ignore situations like on the Yellowstone or Cut Bank Creek," Sharp wrote.
Andy Pierce, vice president for FX Energy, has previously said he does not know why the spill wasn't reported to the tribe or Bureau of Land Management, which is responsible for mineral leases on tribal land.