More than 5,000 people in the rural Montana city of Glendive have been told not to use municipal water because elevated levels of cancer-causing benzene were found downstream from a weekend crude oil spill into the Yellowstone River.
Officials said they were distributing fresh water being trucked in after a warning was posted for the residents not to drink or cook with the city water supply because of the high level of benzene, which has a sweet odor and could be a health danger over the long term.
About 1,200 barrels of crude oil, or approximately 50,000 gallons, leaked Saturday from the 12-inch Poplar pipeline near where it crosses the Yellowstone.
The pipeline is owned by Bridger Pipeline, a subsidiary of True Cos., a privately held Wyoming company. The pipeline was shut down within an hour of the discovery of the leak, and more than 50 people are working to clean up the spill, the company said.
"It is an inconvenience for everyone in the community, no doubt," Glendive Mayor Jerry Jimison told the Los Angeles Times. "But we have truckloads of water being supplied, and the company has taken full responsibility, stepping up to the plate and helping bring everything back to normal."
The spill seeped into the river and contaminated the city's water supply, according to the federal Environmental Protection Agency.
"The initial results of samples taken from the city of Glendive's drinking water system indicate the presence of hydrocarbons at elevated levels, and water intakes in the river have been closed," the EPA said in a statement.
Jimison said he was hopeful that the water system would be cleaned and brought back on line this week. No illnesses have been reported from the contamination.
"I got up Sunday morning, showered, brushed my teeth and had two cups of coffee and went to church," the mayor said, noting he used municipal water hours after the spill. "I'm doing just fine."
A flyover spotted sheens along the river, including at a drinking-water intake 25 miles north of Glendive, according to the Montana Department of Environmental Quality. Gov. Steve Bullock has declared a state of emergency in two counties along the river.
The results from the first sample taken from the Glendive Municipal Water Treatment Plant showed an elevated level of volatile organic compounds, predominantly benzene, according to the state agency. Long-term exposure of high levels of benzene can cause leukemia. But officials minimized the risk of short-term exposure.
"While the elevated levels are above the level for long-term consumption, the scientists who reviewed the data at the Centers for Disease Control [and Prevention] have ... [said] that they 'do not see that domestic use of this water poses a short-term public health hazard,'" the state said in a statement.
Glendive is a city of about 5,500 to 6,000 people, having grown a bit in recent years because of the oil boom in North Dakota, whose border lies about 40 miles east. It is the county seat of Dawson County in the farming country near Makoshika State Park.