Second rupture under Yellowstone River in four years makes Keystone look more ominous-

There has been a massive rupture of the Poplar oil pipeline under the Yellowstone River near Glendive, Montana. This is about a hundred miles upstream from the North Dakota border and the Yellowstone’s confluence with the Missouri River.

The pipeline lay buried eight feet under the river bed when checked last in 2011. After 2011, river scouring perhaps, brought pipeline in contact with the flow of the mighty Yellowstone, and it broke, sending 40,000 gallons into the largely frozen over river.  Federal law requires pipelines be buried at least four feet under a river, but here it appears the eight feet of gravel and whatever over the pipe disappeared in the last four years.

The Yellowstone is the longest undammed river in the lower 48, and it is a haven for big river fish. Riparian forests and badlands of clay along the river add much scenery and wildlife to the scene.

A very similar pipeline break happened in 2011 when an Exxon Mobil pipeline broke under the Yellowstone upstream near Billings, Montana. Exxon ended up paying a fine of over a million dollars. That spill was perhaps slightly larger than the present one.

The Poplar pipeline, which carries fracked oil from the big Bakkan shale play, is only a third the diameter of the proposed Keystone XL pipeline. The Keystone would also cross the Yellowstone in the same general area. The Keystone would be filled with the much more toxic and hard to clean up “dilbit.” Dilbit contains “oil,” actually diluted bitumen from the Alberta tar sand mines, and a dilutant. The dilutant consists of various hydrocarbon liquids. The exact composition is a trade secret. The dilution is needed to make the bitumen flow because it otherwise has the viscosity of asphalt.

It isn’t really known why this pipeline broke under the Yellowstone because most breaks happen when a river is high and potentially damaging objects are rolling down the stream. An environmental consultant told the Missoulian newspaper, ” ‘It doesn’t happen that often, to be very honest about it,’ said Carl Oskins, an environmental consultant from Taos, New Mexico, who specializes in oil recovery from frozen-over, fast-moving water. ‘I’m not sure why Bridger (Popular’s owner) has a leak at all.’ ”

Unlike real crude oil, bitumen sinks to the bottom and the dilutant consists of some toxic, carcinogenic liquids such as benzene.  Submerged bitumen is much harder to clean up than regular crude oil.  It can be supremely expensive. In 2010, the Kalamazoo River in Michigan was subjected to more than a million gallons of spilled dilbit. Now five years later it is still not all cleaned up and billions of dollars have been spent trying to clean the river.

About the Kalamazoo River oil pipeline spill. 

The Yellowstone is the Missouri’s major tributary. Of course, the Missouri is the major tributary of the Mississippi.

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About The Author

Ralph Maughan

Dr. Ralph Maughan is professor emeritus of political science at Idaho State University. He was a Western Watersheds Project Board Member off and on for many years, and was also its President for several years. For a long time he produced Ralph Maughan's Wolf Report. He was a founder of the Greater Yellowstone Coalition. He and Jackie Johnson Maughan wrote three editions of "Hiking Idaho." He also wrote "Beyond the Tetons" and "Backpacking Wyoming's Teton and Washakie Wilderness." He created and is the administrator of The Wildlife News.

21 Responses to Pipeline rupture under Yellowstone River

  1. Amre says:

    Yet the republicans will continue to push keystone. *Sigh*.

  2. Ida Lupine says:

    I’m not sure how I feel about Keystone now; there really is no environmentally safe way to transport oil (I’m thinking about the rail cars explosions in Quebec and the constant shipping/drilling disasters), and with world demand, it isn’t going away anytime soon. They say pipeline is the safest method of the questionable group. I don’t know what to think. There are and will be more pipelines. I wish there weren’t.

    • Ralph Maughan says:

      Ida Lupine,

      They want folks to think that international transport of the bitumen is inevitable, and they don’t want the stuff called “bitumen.” They prefere syncrude or just oil.

      I think it is possible to shutter the tar sands by denying pipelines and just waiting for low world crude oil prices to cause abandonment of the tar pits.

  3. snaildarter says:

    I don’t think a one million dollar fine is enough, maybe $100 million would help them come up with a better system. Oil is just plain bad news in so many ways but I drive so I’m guilty as charged. However I do have a 2003 Toyota echo 5 speed without power steering or power brakes. It gets about 50 miles to a gallon at 55 MPH so there are ways to burn less gas without buying an expensive hybrid
    or electric vehicle.

  4. monty says:

    On C Span during the XL Keystone senate debate a democrat raised the point that the price of oil would have to be about $90.00 a barrel to make a profit.

  5. Yvette says:

    The Montana DEQ has updates, maps and pictures of the incident. There are links to the response of Poplar Pipeline, and EPA, too. and Documents

    After reading Ralph’s article the first thing that struck me is what is going on in the watershed to cause that much erosion in 3-4 years? If there has been a recent large magnitude flood it would make more sense, but if not, how did pipe buried 8ft become exposed? That seems to be a huge amount of channel degradation in a short time frame. Maybe they misjudged the depth of the pipeline when it was last inspected. ?

    • skyrim says:

      One can never underestimate the power of moving water in short periods of time. Case in point: the spring issues along the Virgin and Santa Clara rivers in southern Utah.
      The oldest lesson is oil and water do not mix.

  6. Kathleen says:

    “The oldest lesson is oil and water do not mix.”
    Right on. And if there IS an older lesson, it’s that nature bats last.

  7. Ida Lupines says:

    I hope citizens speak up to protect the priceless Chesapeake Bay and its seafood industry. BP all over again.

    • Ida Lupines says:

      The East Coast is never protected and is the industrial scrap heap of the country. There’s no drilling on the Pacific coast and Alaska is being protected. It’s time some priceless waterways on the East Coast are protected too.

      • Ida Lupines says:

        This should concern everyone, that since the Deep Water Horizon spill, nothing, n-o-t-h-i-n-g, has been done to address safety issues, blowouts, etc. of offshore drilling.

        I’m concerned that this Administration is protecting remote areas such as the Pacific Island Marine Reserve and Alaska, but that areas closer to home, in people’s everyday lives, are not. Sally Jewell is right – some places are just to special for drilling – like Nantucket Sound, Chesapeake Bay, and the Outer Banks!

        The wind farm in Nantucket is outdated and poorly sited, with only construction ease considered – but other leases are available all up and down the East Coast, that don’t threaten the environment and fisheries, and tourism, the lifeblood of these areas. Each location should be carefully scrutinized for suitability, not just plopped down in the middle of sensitive areas. To dismiss people concerns as ‘spoiling the rich people’s views’ is an insult. It spoils the poor people’s views too, strains the poor people’s wallets, and threatens their livelihoods.

        What about climate change, all talk? I know, I know, it isn’t going to happen overnight.

  8. Ida Lupine says:

    Here’s the problem with wind energy. I thought this article in the Sunday Boston Globe summed it up well. Until this kind of deception is ended, people aren’t going to trust wind energy:

    We’re not against alternative energy in general; just business as usual. We expect more from alternative energy.

  9. Ida Lupine says:

    Another facepalmingly bad decision. What a vicious, endless cycle – oil spills and money allocated to cleaning them up, over and over again. And trying to make it all palatable to the American public by offering them money. What was all the rhetoric about climate change again? 2016 can’t come fast enough for this administration to end.

    • Ida Lupine says:

      Every state on the Eastern seaboard was sued by the Federal government for control of offshore waters precisely for drilling and energy, so it does not belong to us anyway, those of us who live here.

  10. Nancy says:

    “Less than 10 percent of the oil that spilled into the river has been recovered and it’s uncertain if that amount will significantly increase”

    So hush, children, Daddy (government/oil interests) will make things right….. eventually.


January 2015


‎"At some point we must draw a line across the ground of our home and our being, drive a spear into the land and say to the bulldozers, earthmovers, government and corporations, “thus far and no further.” If we do not, we shall later feel, instead of pride, the regret of Thoreau, that good but overly-bookish man, who wrote, near the end of his life, “If I repent of anything it is likely to be my good behaviour."

~ Edward Abbey