Daily Inter Lake: Exxon spill highlights gaps in pipeline oversight

Three weeks after a broken Exxon Mobil pipeline spilled 1,000 barrels of oil into the Yellowstone River, federal officials remain unsure how many pipelines carrying hazardous fuels cross the nation’s rivers and streams, nor can they say how deeply those pipelines are buried.

The spill into the Montana river amid historic flooding this month drew attention to what had long been an overlooked part of the nation’s energy infrastructure: the presence of pipelines underneath rivers coursing throughout the country. The spill raised concern that other underwater pipelines may have been exposed to debris by high and fast-moving waters that swept much of the U.S. in recent months.

As regulators scramble to gauge what other lines might be at risk, lawmakers from both parties are raising alarms that another spill could be imminent unless the government steps up oversight of the largely self-regulated pipeline industry.

“If we don’t know where the (pipelines) are in the ground and how many crossings are under rivers and streams so we can check on them, we’re asking for another catastrophe,” said U.S. Sen. Jon Tester.

Tester, a Montana Democrat, said he was dismayed that the U.S. Pipeline and Hazardous Material Safety Administration could not immediately provide an inventory of pipeline crossings when he requested the information. “We had massive water this year, make no mistake about that. We need to re-evaluate the impact of those floods on the river crossings,” he said.

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