LAUREL, Mont. — State workers on Tuesday set fire to an oil-tainted logjam on an island along the Yellowstone River, the last of dozens of debris piles smeared with crude from an Exxon Mobil pipeline break that dumped 42,000 gallons of oil into the waterway.
Two employees of the Montana Department of Natural Resources and Conservation, Derek Yeager and Matt Wolcott, used drip torches to ignite the woody debris as Exxon Mobil contractors looked on.
With a blast of heat and a spiral of smoke, the fire spread quickly through the oil-soaked logs. Just a few hours later, the last of the flames were extinguished with a water hose that had been brought in to keep the blaze from spreading beyond the island.
"Whatever was there is gone now," Wolcott said of the oil in the logjam.
Elsewhere along Yellowstone, black stains from the July 1 spill near Laurel still can be found on trees and rocks near the shoreline and on islands. Environmental regulators have warned that more damaging crude could re-appear next spring, when high waters stir up any oil trapped in river bottom sediments.
But after more than four months of cleanup work – an operation that involved more than 1,000 people at its peak – Exxon Mobil representatives and state officials said Tuesday that the emergency response to the July 1 spill is largely over.
"At this point we're just dotting the i's, making sure it's all right," said Rick Lavold, an Exxon Mobil contractor supervising the cleanup.
As he spoke, Lavold was working with another contractor to pull charred pieces of wood from Tuesday's burnout of the river. Stuffing the black material into trash bags in case any oil remained, Lavold added that remediation and reclamation work by the company will continue, including for agricultural areas marred with oil where farmers have worried about long-term damage to their land.
Additional soil and water monitoring is planned, said Exxon Mobil spokeswoman Claire Hassett. She said the company had made a "start to finish" commitment to see the cleanup through.
The Environmental Protection Agency has been gone from the spill response since September, after most areas of moderate or heavy oiling had been addressed. That left the state Department of Environmental Quality as the chief oversight agency for the spill.
DEQ officials said they appreciated Exxon Mobil's cooperation but that some of the damage from the spill could not be undone.
"The difficulty is you can't get everything, and you can't put it back to the condition it was before the spill," said DEQ deputy director Tom Livers.
Information provided by federal officials reveals that damage to wildlife was far more extensive than the handful of birds and reptiles initially reported as being oiled.
Wildlife rescuers captured and cleaned 131 animals, most of them toads and frogs, but also a Canada goose, a cooper's hawk and 11 snakes, according to a tally from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
Another 129 animals were collected dead: 29 birds, 10 mammals, a turtle, five toads and frogs, 83 fish and a crawfish. A determination of whether oil killed those animals is pending. Officials said some likely died of causes unrelated to the spill.
Forty-seven animals were seen with oil but not captured, including three bald eagles, five pelicans, four spotted sandpipers and dozens of other birds.
Many of the animals were not found for weeks. That was because the same river flooding blamed for the pipeline break also limited access to oil-hit areas along the Yellowstone, said Karen Nelson with the Fish and Wildlife Service.
"A lot of the issues came when the water levels came down and there were isolated pools around the debris piles that had a lot of oil in them," Nelson said. "That's where the spotted sandpipers were getting oiled and lots of frogs and toads and snakes were being oiled."
A full tally of damages has not been compiled. That process is expected to take months more to complete.
Tuesday's burning of the logjam was meant to prevent future problems, such as eagles or herons using oil-coated sticks from the pile to build their nests, said Ray Mule, a wildlife manager for Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks.
Federal officials are investigating the cause of the spill. No fines or penalties for Exxon Mobil have been announced to date, although state officials have said pollution laws undoubtedly were broken.
Exxon Mobil Corp. disclosed last week that it expects costs of the cleanup and pipeline repairs to reach $135 million. That figure could be driven yet higher by a lawsuit filed by landowners dissatisfied with the cleanup.
The landowners' attorney, Cliff Edwards of Billings, said he will seek tens of millions of dollars in damages. Edwards said a dozen landowners were now involved in the lawsuit, four more than signed onto the original complaint
"These aren't two-bit properties. These are large properties and large businesses and we have no satisfaction," Edwards said. "We've got resolve and we're going to take this through the court system."
Exxon Mobil said 95 percent of property owners have settled their claims against the company.