Another step in the cleanup of last summer’s oil spill on the Yellowstone River will take place in the coming days, when Montana DNRC fire crews will burn a pile of oiled woody debris on an island located just upriver from the Duck Creek Bridge.
Officials with the Montana Dept. of Environmental Quality (DEQ) and ExxonMobil determined burning the debris was the most effective cleanup method due to safety concerns. The debris pile partially hangs over swift river currents, and poses a safety hazard for cleanup crews to dismantle. Applying a fixative and leaving the oil to naturally degrade is also not an option because of wildlife concerns.
Matt Wolcott, Manager of DNRC’s Southern Land Office in Billings, said the burn will be a day-long process. A crew of 10 firefighters will ignite the debris pile in the morning using drip torches; by evening, they’ll move in to extinguish it. Fire managers expect smoke from the pile will last for about six hours.
“To mitigate the impacts on Billings residents, we’re waiting until we get a north to northeasterly wind to push the smoke away from the downtown area,” Wolcott said. “As soon as we get the proper conditions, we’ll carry out the burn plan.”
Crews from ExxonMobil will assist in the operation by placing booms 100 yards downstream to catch any burning debris or dripping oil.
Wolcott said the goal is to burn as much of the oiled woody debris as possible. While the pile has been kept under a tarp, Wolcott said residual moisture in the wood makes it unlikely the entire pile will be consumed. “If the entire pile burns, that would be ideal, but it’s not what we’re expecting,” he said.
According to the DEQ, the smoke is not expected to be toxic. “The smoke you’ll see will be primarily from the wood burning,” said Alvey.
“We estimate there are no more than five gallons of oil in this pile and the burning should quickly consume any volatile chemicals that haven’t weathered away in the last four months.”
According to Mary Ann Dunwell, this week marks four months since the July oil spill from the Exxon Mobil Silvertip Pipeline rupture that released an estimated 1,000 barrels of crude oil into the Yellowstone River near Laurel. State and federal agencies, Yellowstone County, landowners and Exxon Mobil Pipeline have been working to clean up and monitor about an 80 river-mile stretch and surrounding properties. The state is also assessing the safety of pipeline infrastructures underneath streams and rivers throughout Montana.