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Glendive charts communication improvements after oil spill

GLENDIVE, Mont. -- Last January, people here began smelling oil in their water. Bakken crude had gotten into the city's water intake. But no one in town was told until more than 24 hours after the spill.

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Some say Glendive's drinking water has been contaminated as crews work to contain an oil spill from Bridger Pipeline's broken pipeline near Glendive in this aerial view on Monday, January 19, 2015. (LARRY MAYER / BILLINGS GAZETTE)

GLENDIVE, Mont. - Last January, people here began smelling oil in their water. Bakken crude had gotten into the city’s water intake. But no one in town was told until more than 24 hours after the spill.

Now, months after the Poplar Pipeline leaked 32,000 gallons of oil into the Yellowstone River from a 1½-inch gash near a weld, local and state officials are trying to learn from what went wrong.

“We definitely made mistakes,” said Kevin Pena, Glendive’s sanitarian and a city commissioner who represents Ward 2. “We tried to do our best to acknowledge it. At the time, we were trying to correct the problem instead of talking about how we screwed up.”

On Jan. 17, the list of unknowns was long - why was Bridger Pipeline’s Wyoming facility showing a drop in pressure on the Poplar line they owned in Dawson County? Was there a leak and was it near the river? What about the ice coating the Yellowstone? Could oil make its way down 14 feet of river to the city’s water intake, which only runs from 6 a.m. to noon on the weekends?

“We kind of just sat on it,” said Mary Jo Gehnert, Dawson County’s Disaster and Emergency Services coordinator. “It was not confirmed until Sunday morning that there was a release and yes, it had gone into the river.”

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The Environmental Protection Agency was the lead agency responding to the spill. It has authority on navigable waterways. The EPA was dispatched Saturday evening around 5:30 and offered advice to all other agencies involved that the possibility for Glendive's water intake sucking in oil was low because the valves are so deep below the surface.

But that wasn't the case, and residents were mad they weren’t immediately notified. They directed their anger at Gehnert and other local and state officials and through community groups on Facebook.

“Regretfully so, that was wrong,” she said. “That was mishandled. There was a lot of nasty stuff being said about us on social media.”

By 5 p.m. Sunday, Gehnert wanted to put out a release telling people not to drink the water if they had concerns. About an hour prior - around the time The Billings Gazette posted a story about a potential spill, based on information in a press release from Bridger - the police department began getting calls from people reporting their water smelled like oil.

“DEQ said no, don’t put that message out until you have facts,” she said.

 

Avoiding panic

Kristi Ponozzo, the Montana Department of Environmental Quality’s public policy director, said the DEQ was offering advice to be "accurate, safe and not create a panic." She said that was interpreted by local responders as a message not to put out information about the possibility of a spill.

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Because Glendive and Dawson County are so small, they looked to the DEQ for advice - something that’s hard to give from seven hours away in Helena.

“It becomes challenging for us when we don’t have people on the ground,” Ponozzo said. “We are relying a lot on the local folks. We should have made it more clear it was really up to them. We should have made it more clear that you guys send messages out. Do whatever messaging you feel is important for your local community."

On June 1, the DEQ published a final After Action Review, which analyzes what went right and wrong in its spill response. The report identifies improving communications with local officials as well as clarifying the agency’s role in distributing information as areas for improvement, saying "communication between city, county, state and federal agencies can be improved to adequately describe the authority and assistance provided by DEQ."

By reviewing what happened after the Glendive spill, the DEQ will improve its response to emergencies across the state in the future, Ponozzo said.

“We’ve really beefed up our training and the sort of presence we will have for public information." Based on what it learned, Ponozzo said the DEQ will now send public information officers out as part of their initial response team as well provide more people with incident command training, so everyone who responses to a disaster “can be a little more well-versed.

“There’s always room for improvement,” she said. “A lot of it does come down to we could have gotten more information out sooner."

Gehnert said Dawson County is taking steps to make sure that confusion won’t happen again - starting with hiring a public information officer.

“We need a PIO, somebody with the training and knowledge,” Pena said. “The lack of that left us leaning on outside agencies, and their guidance didn’t always help. But to be fair, they weren’t here.”

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Making upgrades

County Commissioner Adam Gartner said the county has a job description and hopes to hire someone who is currently a county employee to avoid any issues with contracting the work out.

After the spill, Bridger hired its own PIO, Bill Salvin, who put together a frequently updated website with press releases, photos, videos, claims information and hotline details. Gehnert is working with Salvin to hold a communications training in Glendive this February.

But that training won’t help the county’s new PIO if there isn't a way to distribute information. Last January, police dispatch’s reverse 911 system that calls homes to alert residents in an emergency was in the middle of an update and not functioning. But if it was working, even in rural Glendive not many folks rely on a landline.

Dawson County is in the process of purchasing a modern mass notification system that residents can opt into by providing their contact information. Then they will get a text, call or email if there’s an emergency.

Gehnert said she’s choosing between two systems and the cost will be between $4,000 to $12,000 annually. She said the departments that will use it will help pay for their costs from their budgets, along with some matching funds the county has found.

Pena said the county is working on ways to get the word out, including turning to the same social media pages where residents voiced their outrage after the spill.

“There’s no faster way for me to get information out than to post a message in Dawson Discussion,” a popular Facebook group where many vented about the lack of notification. He said the county will also go through more traditional means, like the local newspaper, TV stations and radio ads.

For Gehnert, the experience and lessons learned are personal. She was born and raised in Glendive, a town that’s small enough that people know where she lives.

“I had a letter in my mail that said ‘Just because you have your own water well doesn’t mean you can just forget about us that are on city water,’” she said.

For her, it’s critical that Glendive learns to take the lead.

“One of the hardest lessons that I learned, and I’ve been told this since I took this job in 2010, is that incidents begin and end at the local level. It doesn’t matter if DEQ, EPA, whoever, comes in. It’s still our incident and it’s still our people that we have to protect.”

 

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