ExxonMobil has agreed to pay $12 million for restitution for the 2011 incident when their pipeline under the Yellowstone River near Laurel broke, spilling some 1500 barrels of oil. That has been the big news of the past week, and it has all the makings of a big news story – big bad company, environmental degradation, and the appearance that government is here to protect us all. But, that isn’t the whole news story.
Another question should be pursued. What penalties are being imposed on the regulators who failed to protect us all? As media drooled over the story when it happened – a tidbit of information that was overwhelmed, was that a City of Laurel employee informed the Environmental Protection Agency and the Department of Environmental Quality, as well as the company and every other kind of public agency he could think of, that the break was most likely going to happen, with the next extensive runoff.
Several months before the break, in a meeting with Yellowstone County Commissioners, he said that in dealing with the City of Laurel’s intake issues, he had discovered the river was scouring the bed of the river with each spring runoff, and that there remained just eight feet of gravel protecting the pipeline. He said that besides informing city officials and county officials, he had told EPA, DEQ, the Governor’s office and every state agency he could think of about the problem. He had contacted every entity that had right- of -ways near the area, as well as ExxonMobil and even other refineries, trying to find out what could be done. At every turn he was greeted with indifference (including the county commissioners), usually being told by everyone they had no authority or responsibility.
He was astonished, as well he should have been, given the inundation to which we are all subjected that such government agencies are necessary to prevent such disasters from happening. Since it turns out that the EPA and DEQ led the government oversight of the cleanup and the imposition of fines, they must have some culpability in ignoring the warning, and should be held equally accountable.
And, just to keep things in perspective— as everyone dances around the $12 million compensation, and knowing that Exxon Mobil spent $135 million at the time of the spill in cleanup efforts, as well as another $2.6 million in fines and are likely to pay millions more as government imposes punitive fines — what is left to clean up? Just prior to one of the many press conferences held during the cleanup process, in a room filled with scientists representing every imaginable entity, one of them laughed about all the cleanup efforts, saying that in reality, nature, within the span of just a year, would do as much. (Petroleum is, after all, a natural substance.) No one said a word to counter the assertion, but not one of them made the point after the press conference began. They went along with the hype that devastation had just been wrought upon the river and the universe, for all time.
There were those who pointed out, at the time, that despite all the hype about the level of devastation, the media had a hard time finding any dead wildlife for photo ops. So one has to wonder what reclamation – what fish or birds – was the Governor talking about, this week, in his comments about the purpose of the money.
What was the Attorney General’s spokesman talking about when he said, “We’re going to work to bring the river back to where it would have been but for that spill event”?
Here, five years later, there is undoubtedly not a molecule of evidence of the spill.
The funds are a windfall to the State and strangely enough the federal government, which is getting $2.5 million of the settlement. It was reported that Montana will spend $4.7 million on shoreline and channel restoration and improvement, another $3.6 million for wildlife habitat restoration, $2.4 million for improving recreational access, $900,000 for restoration planning and $400,000 for improving white pelican breeding areas.
There should be accountability for an incident that should never have happened and was preventable, and most of it should fall upon the company, but that it happened despite all the regulatory “safeguards” that taxpayers handsomely pay for, also deserves close examination. Especially, since the fact remains that the agencies have yet to promulgate any regulations to address pipelines built under rivers.
One must question exactly how effective regulations and regulators really are and whether the taxpayers shouldn’t be relieved of their huge cost, while backing off of economic barriers to innovation and productivity.
It is also to question the justification of government gouging industry just because it can. They are obviously Imposing fines and compensation far beyond restitution. Even if it involves a big company, that is simply not right. In the end, consumers pay for all these millions. In the end, the millions would serve the population far better in the private sector in terms of production, dividends to investors, and job creation, than they ever will in government.
And, that is the rest of the news story.

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