NOAA’s Office of Response and Restoration is officially on scene at the Yellowstone River spill, in Billings, Mont., where an ExxonMobil pipeline ruptured on July 1, 2011, releasing an estimated 31,500 to 42,000 gallons of oil into the iconic river, which was at flood-stage level at the time of the spill.
Being part of NOAA, the Office of Response and Restoration (OR&R) usually sticks to the ocean and coasts—the “O” in NOAA is for Oceanic, after all—but sometimes we venture inland when other federal agencies ask for our help. In this case, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has asked us to start the initial stages of a Natural Resource Damage Assessment on their behalf for the Yellowstone spill. This process, which usually kicks off at the same time as cleanup, studies the overall effects of a spill on fish, wildlife, surrounding habitat, and public use of those resources (i.e. fishing or boating). Scientists work together to identify the extent of damage, figure out how to rehabilitate those resources, and specify the type and amount of restoration needed. Our staff is expert in this damage assessment process because we do it all the time thanks to the mandate of the Oil Pollution Act of 1990.
In Montana, OR&R will be establishing the damage assessment structure and process, assessing the situation, and beginning injury planning and implementation for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Charlene Andrade of OR&R’s Assessment and Restoration Division arrived at the command post in Montana on July 16 and will remain there for approximately two weeks.
Additionally, OR&R scientists John Lomnicky and Jordan Stout are on scene modeling what happened to the oil, where it is headed, and what responders should expect to see at the scene of the spill. Also, NOAA meteorologists from the Weather Forecast Office in Billings, Mont., are providing critical weather data to guide the response and ensure the safety of workers.
While we’re happy to be helping, our friends at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency are the ones leading the overall cleanup effort for this incident, and they have lots of up-to-date information at http://www.epa.gov/yellowstoneriverspill/, including answers to frequently asked questions on the last page of this incident update [PDF].
Due to its location on the east side of the Continental Divide, the Yellowstone River flows from west to the northeast, meaning the spilled oil is headed away from Yellowstone National Park. It also happens to be the longest undammed river in the continental U.S.
To get a closer look at how a Natural Resource Damage Assessment works, check out NOAA’s video on this process in the Gulf of Mexico in the wake of the Deepwater Horizon/BP oil spill:
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