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By Tristan 

Wildlife assessment from oil spill could be weeks


BILLINGS (AP) — It may be two or three weeks before Montana officials can safely launch boats on the Yellowstone River to determine the extent of damage to wildlife from the July 1 oil spill, officials said.

The river near is running high from late snowpack melt, making it difficult to accurately assess the effects of an estimated 1,000 barrels of oil that spilled into the river after and Exxon Mobil Corp. pipeline failed near Laurel.

"We haven't seen 99 percent of the riverbank yet," Bob Gibson, a spokesman for Fish, Wildlife and Parks, told the Billings Gazette on Friday. "We can go to fishing access sites, but we can't go to any of the islands, the braided back channels, the shallow waters."

Those back channels, where fish and other aquatic species go when the water is high, are where much of the spilled oil is believed to have pooled.

Cleanup crews reported the same problem. Environmental Protection Agency officials said Saturday they have identified 30 areas along the river and its back channels where there is recoverable oil, but can't access nine of them because of the fast-moving water, spokesman Matthew Allen said.

AP Photo/Jim Urquhart

The Yellowstone River flows past the Exxon Mobil refinery in Billings Wednesday. An Exxon Mobil pipeline ruptured and spilled an estimated 1,000 barrels of crude into the Yellowstone.

Most of those 30 identified areas are within 30 miles of the spill, though isolated pockets of oil have been found as far as 70 miles downstream, he said. Possible oil foam has been spotted 80 miles downstream.

Crews can't put boats in the main channel of the fast-moving river, meaning vessels are only able to be placed in shallow and slack water, EPA officials said.

International Bird Rescue, which has been cooperating with Exxon Mobil in the oil spill response, has reported seeing no oiled birds.

The group has recovered one oiled baby garter snake, which has been cleaned and released.

Jay Holcomb, the organization's executive director, said in a Friday release that he believes the high, fast-moving river has forced seasonal waterfowl to go elsewhere, sparing them from the oil.

"All in all, this is not the worst spill we have been involved with, but it's still a spill and we will continue to monitor wildlife along the river as long as there is any risk," Holcomb said in the release.

The threat is not just to birds and fish, but officials are concerned about harm to the organisms that they feed on, such as plankton, state officials said.

"The bottom end of the food chain is kind of where we're worried," Gibson said.

Once the river recedes, biologists will document signs of the spill on back channels and flooded areas, then go back and look at the impact to those areas.

"What the five- or 10-year consequences of this are, we just don't have a clue," Gibson said.

The executive director of International Bird Rescue, which has been cooperating with Exxon in the oil spill response, said in a release Friday that his agency has seen no oiled birds.

Test results from water samples taken show the concentration of oil in the water is not above drinking water standards, according to the EPA. The agency also planned to conduct indoor air sampling at homes in the area.

The EPA planned to hold a public meeting in Laurel on Tuesday.



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