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Benzene, a chemical classified by the EPA as a Group A carcinogen, has been detected in Montana tap water following an oil spill in the Yellowstone River.

Image: WikiMedia Commons

On Saturday, a breach in a 12-inch oil pipeline spilled up to 50,000 gallons of oil into the Yellowstone River. Montana officials reported no immediate threats to human health, but additional tests were performed after residents of Glendive, a community of approximately 6,000 people located downstream from the spill, complained of a “diesel-like” smell emanating from their tap water.

On Monday morning, officials said a possible contamination of the water system was “unlikely,” though Dawson County Disaster and Emergency Services coordinator Mary Jo Gehnert was noncommittal on the issue. “I am not saying the water is unsafe. I am not saying it is safe,” she said. “We are waiting for officials to arrive who can make that decision.”

Later that day, water samples taken from the local treatment plant revealed elevated levels of benzene, a chemical naturally found in crude oil.

Scientists from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention say the amount of benzene in the Glendive water supply is above the recommended dosage for long-term consumption and are currently working on methods of decontamination. On Monday, officials reported that they were trucking in drinking water for the eastern Montana city.

Acute exposure to benzene can cause drowsiness, dizziness, headaches and unconsciousness. Exposure to liquid or vapor forms of benzene can irritate the skin, eyes and respiratory tract. Ingestion of large amounts can result in vomiting, dizziness and convulsions. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, humans occupationally exposed to benzene exhibit increased likelihood of developing leukemia.

One Glendive resident, Wesley Henderson, told The Guardian that he had been drinking his tap water until an advisory warning was issued late on Monday. “It sucks,” he said on Tuesday. “I didn’t find out about the advisory until after I’d been drinking it. My stomach hurt all day yesterday. I don’t know if that was just in my mind.”

Think Progress points out that the controversial Keystone XL pipeline would also run through the Dakotas and down into Nebraska. The KXL would transport 34 million gallons of tar sands oil per day, a particularly heavy crude that sinks in water. Local Nebraska farmer Art Tanderup has been rallying other farmers and organizations against the proposed pipeline, which he fears could irrevocably damage the Ogallala Aquifer.

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