How much oil spilled, what is the environmental impact, when did the leak begin, when did it end, when did responsible companies know they had a leak...? Answers in Montana, as in the gulf last year, keep changing. Why? Because spokespersons form Exxon and pipeline manager FX Energy chose to speculate instead of waiting until the facts were in. Doing so led to a lack of credibility and loss of trust.
Most of the media have gone home. After slogging through initial updates, followed by corrections and ultimately by shoulder shrugging and I-don't-knows, reporters have moved on to other stories.
At last, a regional paper, the Great Falls Tribune, offered an update earlier today. But it's the same story. "Officials are unsure how much oil spilled into the creek, which connects with the Marias River and ultimately the Missouri River. It is unclear whether the spill has had any effect on wildlife. Workers have found two dead birds, but they did not know whether that was related.
"The Environmental Protection Agency, the lead investigator into the spill, said Tuesday there was no new information into the circumstances surrounding the incident. The agency has said it is investigating why Salt Lake City-based FX Energy did not report the spill when it happened." (http://www.greatfallstribune.com/article/20110727/NEWS01/110727012/Cut-Bank-oil-spill-cleanup-go-weeks)
Censored News, a website with a head-scratching name that covers "indigenous people and human rights," reported after the leak, "Blackfeet officials confirmed that oil was spotted in the river at least two weeks ago by a kayaker who reported the incident to 911. According to a preliminary investigation by the Blackfoot Environmental Department, FX Drilling attempted to fix the pipeline after the 911 call, but left the break unmended for over a week, claiming they were unable to access the site. Also according to the investigation, FX failed to initiate cleanup on the site after fixing the pipeline. On Wednesday, nearly three weeks after the initial discovery of the spill, absorbent booms were finally placed by Indian Country Environmental Associates (ICEA) on the shore of the Cutbank where the oil merges with the river." (http://bsnorrell.blogspot.com/2011/07/oil-spill-into-cutback-river-blackfeet.html)
When the leak was reported, when it was stopped, and when cleanup began and by whom are all subject to rumor and interpretation. "FX Drilling Corporation has claimed that the leak released two barrels of oil, or 84 gallons. However, officials with the Blackfeet Environmental Department have estimated the spill to be 'several thousand gallons.'"
Censored writes of FX, "Their failure to disclose the event to the press, community, or Tribal authorities has caused suspicion that their conduct was not merely negligent, but indicative of a coverup. According to Mary Clare Weatherwax, an official at the Blackfeet Environmental Department, 'There was definitely a lack of communication that would have allowed a proper response.'"
More traditional media, namely ABC News, add credibility to Censored's claims. "Company representatives initially said the spill lasted 'at most' 30 minutes, and then later said workers began shutting down the line within six minutes of the break. On Tuesday, (Exxon Mobil Pipeline Co. president Gary) Pruessing said in response to a question from (Montana Governor Brian) Schweitzer that it took 30 minutes to seal off all the valves needed to stop the flow of crude into the river...."
According to other reports, "Exxon Mobil took almost an hour to fully seal the pipeline after the accident — nearly twice as long as it had publicly disclosed. The company said that did not change its estimate of how much crude entered the river." (http://abcnews.go.com/US/wireStory?id=13997242)
An Exxon Mobil spokesman said the the time difference was based on information the company provided to the agency He said that "the discrepancy might have come about because Pruessing spoke without any notes when he talked with Schweitzer."
Shades of BP's Tony Hayward, another oil exec who made misspeaking in a crisis an art.
"The company earlier downplayed government officials' assertions that damage was spread over dozens of miles. Transportation officials said Wednesday that oil was observed as far downstream as 240 miles.... The agency said that information was provided by Exxon Mobil, but company spokesman Alan Jeffers said he was not aware of any such sighting."
ABC reported that questions remain about how deep that ruptured pipeline was buried under the river. Federal regulations require pipes to be at least four feet deep, but no one can say for sure how deeply this line in question -- or any other line -- was buried.
"(Exxon Mobil) in December surveyed the pipe's depth and said it was at least 5 to 8 feet beneath the riverbed. The line was temporarily shut down in May after Laurel officials again raised concerns that it could be at risk as the Yellowstone started to rise. The company restarted the line after a day, following a review of its safety record.
"The company said in a June 1 email — just a month before the spill — that the line was buried at least 12 feet beneath the riverbed, according to documents from the U.S. Department of Transportation, which oversees pipelines." Pruessing said the company didn't know where the 12-foot figure came from but "was looking into the matter."
The leak has raised concerns about the impact of flooding on the network of pipelines buried under riverbeds. "'It's too early to tell whether this is an isolated incident or there might be other types of increased damage or erosion based on a year of flooding,' said Brigham McCown, a former federal pipeline safety official who now advises pipeline companies at a Dallas firm."
And the cause of the leak? Let's just guess if we don't know, shall we? "The prevailing theory among officials and the company is that the raging Yellowstone eroded the riverbed and exposed the line to damaging rocks or debris."
It's speculation, not fact. What happens to those who speculate?
We learned this lesson as children: when Mom or Dad questioned us, the more our story changed under interrogation, the less credible we became. But somehow, business people in a crisis forget, whether lying or not, that "facts" aren't believable if they're different from the "facts" you handed out this morning. Never speculate.
Another lesson from this story is to watch for the latest fads in public opinion and regulation. Usually the two go together. Specifically, if your employer or client is responsible for underground pipelines that carry hazardous materials, spend some money to ensure that the pipes comply with regulations and your company has done all things possible to prevent leaks.