Yellowstone River rancher says ExxonMobil oil spill has shut down family farm

By David O. Williams
Real AspenJuly 8, 2011
Luckily, Alexis Bonogofsky has a day job with the National Wildlife Federation, because her goat ranch and farm on the banks of the Yellowstone River south of Billings, Mont., has been completely shut down by last week's ExxonMobil pipeline break and oil spill.

“We ranch full-time, too,” Bonogofsky told the Colorado Independent Thursday. “I basically have two full-time jobs. When I'm not working at NWF I'm out working on the farm, and what they did is take away that part of my life for an extended period of time and I don't know when or how we're going to get over it because we can't use a majority of our property right now.”

On Friday, July 1, an ExxonMobil pipeline passing under the Yellowstone River near Laurel, Mont., broke and spewed what the company says is about 1,000 barrels (or 42,000 gallons) of oil into the flooded Yellowstone River – the longest undammed river in the United States and a world-renowned recreational fishery.

Bonogofsky disputes Exxon's calculations, saying up to twice as much oil likely poured into the river given that the company has now admitted the pipeline was open for nearly an hour rather than the original estimate of 30 minutes.
Oil from the ExxonMobil pipeline spill on the Bonogofsky family farm along the Yellowstone River.
Alexis Bonogofsky
“It actually ran for I think 20 minutes longer than they said it did, so each minute 2,000 to 3,000 gallons comes out of the pipeline,” Bonogofsky said. “So if you do the math, that's almost twice as much oil as they initially said it was, which is why I'm interested to see why the press keeps reporting that 42,000-gallon number.”

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's Region 8 office, which is now overseeing the cleanup efforts of 544 responders (360 actually in the field), again repeated the 1,000-barrel number in a press release Thursday night. ExxonMobil did not repeat a gallon or barrel estimate in its press release Thursday but did report that “municipal water systems are being notified to monitor water quality by the EPA; no reports of impacts have been received to date.”

The EPA also says water quality is acceptable for agricultural use: “Water sampling conducted by EPA between Laurel and Miles City, MT indicates there are no petroleum hydrocarbons above drinking water levels standards in that region. Preliminary results indicate that the Yellowstone River opposes (sic) no threat to agriculture use.”

Bonogofsky says, “It's really bad. We had to move [150 goats] all the way up to where our house is basically – the two pastures that we have up by our house and the only ones that didn't get flooded. So we can't use the majority of our farm right now. We can't cut hay. We can't graze our animals. It's really bad.”

Even conservation groups are going with the lower estimate. Trout Unlimited repeated it in a press release on Wednesday.

“This accident demonstrates the very real need for diligence when it comes to how we develop and transport oil and gas in the West,” said Montana state Sen. Kendall Van Dyk, TU's Montana energy field coordinator. “We believe that energy companies should drill for and transport domestic fossil fuels in the West, but … incidents like this one, where oil was spilled into one of the nation's most treasured rivers, are simply not acceptable.”

Bonogofsky also said there's a move to engage in independent air-quality monitoring over the weekend because many of the local landowners don't trust the official testing.

“They're like, ‘Stay away from it, but it's fine.' That's what's coming out of [EPA's] mouths,” Bonogofsky said. “Well, pick, either it's not fine or it's fine, and it's safe or it's not safe.”

Per the EPA release: “Air monitoring using real-time instruments that look for volatile organic compounds and hydrogen sulfide continue to show no detections in ambient air along the Yellowstone River. Additionally, air sampling for benzene has been conducted between Laurel, MT, and Billings, MT, with no detections.”

But Bonogofsky says the chemical smell is still strong on her property about 14 river miles downstream from where the pipeline broke nearly a week ago and that globs of oil can be seen in the water.

“I'm lucky I have a job separate from [the ranch], but ultimately [ExxonMobil and EPA] won't answer any questions about toxicity, health issues for livestock or humans,” said Bonogofsky, who emphasized she was speaking as a landowner and not in her role as senior tribal lands coordinator for the NWF. “Because I help other people deal with these issues, so to be the person dealing with this is kind of, I don't know, crazy.”

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