The oil company Exxon Mobil faced a mixture of scepticism and outright hostility yesterday after its president claimed that no wildlife had been harmed in an accident which saw an estimated 1,000 barrels of crude oil spilled directly into one of the most scenic waterways in the American West.
A pipeline in rural Montana ruptured on Friday night, sending an estimated 42,000 gallons of oil into the Yellowstone River. Although the leak was stopped after just six minutes, locals in the region cast doubt on claims by Exxon's Gary Pruessing that damage had been limited to a ten-mile stretch between the towns of Billings and Laurel.
Mr Pruessing further upset locals by telling reporters that no injured wildlife had yet been found. Brian Schweitzer, Montana's Democratic Governor, said the oil company could not be sure of the impact of the spill because it had not yet used boats to access most of the affected region.
"For somebody to say at this early stage that there's no damage to wildlife, that's pretty silly," Mr Schweitzer said. "Otherwise we would just allow rivers to have oil in them all the time. The Yellowstone River is important to us. We've got to have a physical inspection of that river in small boats – and soon."
The spill – downstream from the famous Yellowstone National Park – may have been caused by unseasonably high river levels putting pressure on the pipeline. Exxon admitted that it had closed the pipeline in May, but recently allowed it to re-open after deciding the water appeared to have passed its high point. Mr Pruessing claimed conditions nonetheless made the spill less serious than it might sound. "The turbulence of the river is going to break (the oil) apart and move it in a lot of different directions," he said.
Exxon is paying for 120 clean-up workers to remove oil from sections of river which are immediately accessible, using absorbent pads and booms. But locals say the spill could seriously compromise valuable farmland.
Alexis Bogonofsky, who farms goats in the affected region, told the Los Angeles Times that he had already noticed the spill's impact. "Places where the water has gone down the soil is shiny, there's residue oil and you can see where the grass is already dying," he said. "I'm really concerned about the wildlife. I've seen Canada geese try to take off and they can't get lift because of oil on their wings."
An oil executive's worst nightmare
* There is no good place to spill 1,000 barrels of crude oil, but given its place in the national psyche, you'd be hard-pressed to pick many worse places for a corporation to despoil than the Yellowstone River.
A scenic tributary of the Missouri river which tumbles in waterfalls through its namesake national park before crossing the plains of Wyoming and Dakota, it is famed for producing some of the best wild trout fishing in the world. The Yellowstone has also survived the march of modernity, which has seen many other picturesque rivers spoiled to produce electricity or drinking water. Today, it lays claim to the title of being the longest undammed watercourse in the lower 48 states.