Groundhog Day: An Oil Giant Spins a Spill

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An emergency response crew clean up an oil spill with an absorbent boom along the Yellowstone River in Laurel, Montana, July 5, 2011. An Exxon Mobil pipeline ruptured on Friday night about 150 miles downstream from Yellowstone National Park near the town of Laurel, Montana, just southwest of Billings, dumping up to 1,000 barrels, or 42,000 gallons, of crude oil into the flood-swollen river. REUTERS/John Warner

Credibility is a precious thing. Oil giant ExxonMobil did not have much to begin with, but it went even deeper into its scarce reserves in the past few days when a company pipeline spilled oil into a river that runs past the homes of about 6,500 people. Wednesday brought another blow: it turns out ExxonMobil needed almost an hour to fully seal the burst pipeline instead of the 30 minutes company president Gary Pruessing had initially said it took.

Records from the Department of Transportation indicate that the pipeline’s valves were not fully closed off for 56 minutes after the rupture occurred on 10:40 PM mountain time on Friday night. “It’s unsurprising,” said Ryan Salmon, Energy Policy Advisor for the National Wildlife Federation’s Climate and Energy Program. “We’ve seen a pattern with oil companies underestimating the amount of oil spilled and appearing to be dishonest with regards to how long it took them to shut down their lines.”

Photos from TIME: Oil Spill on the Yellowstone River

In response to these developments, Pruessing apologized for the confusion and pleaded for understanding.  “Shutting down this line is not like shutting off your water faucet at home. You have to be careful about how you do the shutdown to make sure you don’t cause other problems in other segments of the line,” he said, explaining that the process was done in stages. Indicators showed low pressure in the line at 10:41 PM, the company began the shutdown process at 10.47 p.m., and the pipeline at the Yellowstone River was “fully isolated” at 11.36 p.m, said Pruessing. “I know we mentioned earlier it took us 30 minutes to close those isolation valves. The absolute number is 49 minutes.”

Pruessing added that this difference in the reported time taken to seal the pipeline does not change the company’s estimate of the number of barrels of oil currently tainting Yellowstone River – about 750 to 1,000 barrels, or up to 42,000 gallons. “In all likelihood, it’s closer to 750,” he said.

It’s the tone deafness of this serial release of numbers that is especially revealing. Pruessing is no doubt right that shutting off a valve is hard. But looking at your timeline before you talk to the press is exceedingly easy. When you lowball your time estimates and admit the truth only when you’re caught, why in the world should anyone believe you when you next promise that your barrels-spilled number is take-it-to-the-bank reliable. Maybe it is, but your immediate track record says no.

More from TIME: Another Oil Spill, as ExxonMobil Fouls Montana

Even disregarding minutes and volumes, residents are perhaps angrier with the information – or lack thereof – that ExxonMobil is offering about potential health effects of the spill. Pruessing said on Tuesday that EPA sampling so far has not found air or water quality issues in “measurable amounts that would cause problems from a health standpoint,” and the company website currently puts forth a comforting “all previous reports have confirmed no danger to public health.” Yet reports from residents reveal otherwise, with many complaining of health issues emerging in the days after the spill.

“I had to go to the hospital [on Monday] for acute hydrocarbon exposure,” Yellowstone County resident Alexis Bonogofsky said, adding that there have been no public health warnings for residents with preexisting conditions. Bonogofsky works for the National Wildlife Federation and had brought her camera to the riverbank to photograph oil on her property. Meanwhile, Salmon noted that several of his colleagues and their friends have been to the hospital in the last few days because of “sickness related to fumes in the air.”

“I need to know what we’ve been exposed to. People are sick now,” Bonogofsky’s husband Mike Scott said to Pruessing at a news conference on Monday.

Certainly, reps from the National Wildlife Federation have as much incentive to spin as the president of ExxonMobil. But the fact remains that oil is toxic, 42,000 gal. of it has gone missing, and when people are going to the hospital there’s reason to be concerned, attentive and drop-dead honest. ExxonMobil may indeed have limited information at this time – accessing the Yellowstone River is difficult, given that the water is still above flood stage – but the company could benefit from a bit more transparency, especially to the locals whose land and health depend on their getting things right.

Tara Thean is a TIME contributor. Find her on Twitter at @TaraThean. You can also continue the discussion on TIME‘s Facebook page and on Twitter at @TIME.

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