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Yellowstone Pipeline will remain buried beneath Lolo National Forest

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Posted at 10:06 AM, Sep 23, 2019
and last updated 2019-09-25 14:19:51-04

The Lolo National Forest plans to remove less than a third of an abandoned oil pipeline crossing Forest Service land, leaving the rest to rust in the ground between Missoula and Thompson Falls.

The forest’s decision outlines which parts of the abandoned Yellowstone Pipeline it will remove and which sections will remain buried where the pipeline crosses national forest land. Those who have commented in the past now have 45 days to comment on the decision.

The pipeline and its right-of-way, owned by Phillips 66, pass through just under 5 acres of USFS land in three locations: about 4,000 feet of pipe between Missoula and the Flathead Reservation, and another 5,600 feet in two sections along the Clark Fork River between Plains and Thompson Falls.

An environmental assessment published in February had one alternative that would have removed all 9,693 feet of pipe, including two sections that are suspended above the Clark Fork River as the pipeline crosses from the south to the north bank over a chain of islands upstream of Thompson Falls.

The other alternative would have removed the suspended sections and left the rest of the pipeline buried as it is now.

The environmental assessment was based upon scoping and 10 public comments from November 2013.

Lolo Forest Supervisor Carolyn Upton decided on a compromise between the two alternatives, where less than a third of the pipeline will be removed.

Under the decision, the USFS will remove about 3,000 feet of pipeline, which includes the two suspended sections, and leave almost 2,000 feet buried at the location near Thompson Falls.

At the two other locations, all the pipe – 4,775 feet of it – will remain buried.

“Finalizing the long-term plan for the management of the out-of-service petroleum pipeline across the Lolo National Forest has been years in the making. With input from the public, our partners and representatives from the pipeline, we feel the selected action best meets the interests of all parties, while addressing resource concerns” Upton said in a news release.

The abandoned portion of the pipeline was cleaned and capped in the mid-1990s. Since then, treatments with electric current have been used to keep the pipe from corroding.

Under this decision, the electric current treatments would stop, allowing the pipe to decay, and no further maintenance would be carried out. If any other sections of pipe become exposed, the oil company would have to deal with it.

The pipeline lies 2 to 7 feet below the ground, depending on the location. Because it is so shallow, a small portion became exposed after Outlaw Creek scoured the ground away in the location upstream of Thompson Falls. That is included in the section identified for removal.

The oil industry’s habit of burying pipelines at such shallow depths below waterways has resulted in a number of disasters. Most recently, in January 2015, the Poplar Pipeline ruptured near Poplar, spilling more than 50,000 gallons into the Yellowstone River after flooding scoured away the thin soil layer between the water and the pipeline. Before that, in 2011, the Silvertip Pipeline ruptured under the Yellowstone River near Laurel, spilling 63,000 gallons into the river.

In fact, it was worries over recurring pipeline ruptures and leaks that led to the pipeline being abandoned in the mid-1990s.

The Yellowstone Pipeline was built in the mid-1950s to run oil 531 miles from refineries in Billings to Moses Lake, Wash. Most of the pipeline is still operational. But it was buried below land belonging to a number of governments and agencies, including the Forest Service, the state of Montana and the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes, so property easements had to be renewed every so often.

In October 1995, the CSKT refused to renew about 21 miles of pipeline easement crossing the reservation after three major spills contaminated tribal land between 1986 and 1993.

That left the pipeline owners – at the time, Conoco, Exxon and Union Oil – scrambling for alternatives.

After abandoning the existing pipeline and running into opposition over alternative routes, including one that would have run along the Clark Fork River and up over the Ninemile Divide to Plains, the companies started shipping oil via rail over the 90 miles between Missoula and Thompson Falls.

That method of transportation continues today.

USFS realty specialist Robin Jermyn said Phillips 66 has been talking to landowners, including the Montana Department of Natural Resources and Conservation, about possibly removing other pipeline sections.

CSKT spokesman Robert McDonald said the tribes also decided to leave the pipeline buried beneath the reservation, worried about possible pollution caused by digging it up.

DNRC right-of-way specialist Lisa Axline said the state has provided an easement for a short portion of pipeline across a trust land section surrounded by Forest Service land near Thompson Falls. The DNRC didn’t include stipulations for pipeline removal when it agreed to the easement, and transmission lines now pass overhead, Axline said. So the pipeline will probably stay where it is.

“The standard protocol is abandon in place, and that’s the industry standard,” Axline said. ” But we look at things on a case-by-case basis. We look at ‘will removing the pipe cause more damage than leaving it in place?’ “

Phillips 66 spokesman Rich Johnson said in an email the company isn’t pursuing removal of the pipeline.

“Phillips 66 is committed to safely maintaining all of the pipelines we operate, including sections not currently in use. We have no plans to take any action regarding the pipeline on private properties and will continue to maintain the pipeline in accordance with easement agreements and regulatory requirements,” Johnson wrote.

To learn more, visit the Lolo National Forest website or call the Plains-Thompson Falls Ranger District at 826-3821.

Contact reporter Laura Lundquist at lundquist@missoulacurrent.com