An Oil Slick Runs Through It
In Montana, ranchers reel from the oil spill on the iconic Yellowstone River.
By Kate Sheppard | Wed Jul. 20, 2011 3:00 AM PDT

I’m standing in a field next to Montana’s Yellowstone River, a gentle breeze swaying the pasture grass and tempering the 85-degree heat. White fluffs from a cottonwood tree drift slowly across the sky like cartoonish snowflakes. It would be an idyllic scene, if it weren’t for the strong smell of crude oil and the guys in hazmat suits patrolling the farm next door.

It’s two weeks to the day since ExxonMobil’s Silvertip pipeline ruptured under the Yellowstone, spilling an estimated 42,000 gallons of oil into the raging waters in Laurel, Montana [1]. When the spill started late in the evening of July 1, the river had overflowed its banks, pushing water out into the surrounding fields. This meant that the oil, too, flowed in, and when the floods receded they left a ring of black crude around this particular field, and the thick gunk still clung to the blades of grass. Most of the damage was within 50 miles of the site of the break, though oil has been reported as far as 240 miles away [2].

The pair that owns the field that I’m visiting today are ranchers, a middle-aged couple that raises cattle here. They asked that I not use their names, as their lawyer advised that it could affect their claim with Exxon for the damage. I’ll call them Sarah and Jim. As we talk, cleanup workers are mowing oil-stained grass at the farm next door and shoveling oil into bags to carry away. Not long before the spill, Sarah and Jim had been talking about fencing off the field and moving their cattle in to graze; they planned to sell the hay this fall, but given the stripe of crude, now no one will be buying it. The property’s blue ranch house, usually inhabited by Sarah and Jim’s daughter, has been vacant ever since the fumes from the oil drove her to a hotel.

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