LAUREL - While Exxon Mobil and government officials worked Saturday to clear a ruptured pipeline underneath the Yellowstone River of any residual oil, a small group of boaters began their own weeks-long survey of the river in an effort to document areas affected by the spill.
Called the Oily River Rendezvous, the group consisted Saturday of two kayakers and a pair of canoers from Montana and Arizona who plan to float the Yellowstone and its backwaters at least to Miles City and compile data as they go.
"The plan is to go a fairly long distance downstream, surveying the oil as far as we can," said organizer Gary Steele of St. Ignatius. "I heard (Gov.) Brian Schweitzer say 95 percent of the river they can't even look at because they can't get in there, and I thought, ‘Kayaks can get in there just fine.'"
The group, which includes Al Kesselheim and Mary Pat Zitzer of Bozeman and Joe Storto of Tucson, Ariz., is made up of people who each have at least 28 years of boating experience.
They put into the Yellowstone River on Saturday morning from the property of Mike Scott and Alexis Bonogofsky on the south banks of the river.
"It's one of those things where it's really unclear, the extent of the damage and the particulars of the spill," Kesselheim said. "The more people we have documenting, the better."
The group members hoped to make it to Huntley by the end of Saturday. For documenting, they have water sample jars and an oil spill tool kit that includes assessment tips and sheets for marking down where they've seen oil and affected wildlife.
Kesselheim and Zitzer have been canoeing the Yellowstone for decades, completing two trips along the full stretch of the river, including once when Zitzer was pregnant with their second child.
"This is our kid river," she said. "It's part of our family, and it just felt like something we had to do."
Officials with the Environmental Protection Agency and the state Department of Environmental Quality said Saturday they'd prefer boaters stay off the river, both because of the traffic from cleanup crews and high water.
"We've determined that it's really the state's jurisdiction," said Steven Merritt, EPA on-site coordinator for the spill. "From my perspective, it's certainly a safety issue."
Merritt also detailed efforts to clear Exxon's Silvertip pipeline of residual oil where the rupture happened and spilled 1,000 barrels of crude into the river.
Crews planned to remove about 200 barrels of material from the north and south ends of the pipe, which runs underneath the Yellowstone near Laurel. It wasn't immediately known how much of that was oil.
"It's been very controlled so far," he said.
The north segment of the pipeline was drained of about 8,400 gallons (200 barrels) of oily water, according to an EPA update Saturday evening. The water was trucked back to ExxonMobil's Billings refinery for storage while samples are analyzed.
On Sunday, the south segment of the pipeline was vacuumed.
Merritt said the effort hasn't affected cleanup crews, which are "systematically moving (down) the river and cleaning up contaminated areas."
A recent EPA report said air quality samples from the area returned "concentrations slightly above the levels used to evaluate potential human health risks" of the compounds naphthalene and methylene chloride.
Merritt said that after examining samples of the spilled oil and the air before and after the spill, the EPA determined that the higher levels probably aren't from the spill, but from the three refineries in the Billings area.
"Background concentrations indicate that that's not something that's present from the oil spill itself," he said.
Meanwhile, back on the river, Steele and his crew said they're taking every precaution while on the water, because it's still running high and fast, but are determined to get a firsthand look at the possible impacts of the spill.
A second group of kayakers from Missoula is expected to join on Monday, he said.
Kesselheim said that, while not from the Billings area, they feel it's an important task.
"It's the lifeblood of this part of Montana," he said. "... We need to do right by it."