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Montana Farmer Says Exxon Refuses to Admit Extent of Damage from Oil Spill into Yellowstone River

Web ExclusiveJuly 05, 2011
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Click here to see more photos of oil on Alexis Bonogofsky’s land.

Family farmer, Alexis Bonogofsky, didn’t get a phone call from ExxonMobil Pipeline Company when its pipeline ruptured Friday night beneath the Yellowstone River, leaking as much as 42,000 gallons of crude oil into the water and onto neighboring land of property owners such as herself. Instead, she discovered “globs of oil” Saturday morning while checking on the flooded pastureland where she grazes her goats. Since then, she says company officials have failed to answer her questions about the health and environmental impact of the spill.

In a Tuesday evening interview with Democracy Now!, Bonogofsky said the damage is extensive where she lives, about 10 miles from the rupture, and that she is worried about the diverse wildlife in the area. “Usually when you go down there [near the river] in the evening, that’s all you can hear, is amphibians, and it’s frogs, it’s toads, a lot of insects, crickets and birds,” says Bonogofsky. “Right now you walk down there at dusk, and you don’t hear anything.”

ALEXIS BONOGOFSKY: My name is Alexis Bonogofsky, and I live on a family farm south of Billings, Montana, in the Blue Creek area, and it’s right on the Yellowstone River. We raise meat goats here, and we have a huge produce garden and also raise chickens and sell eggs. And so, we have a pretty diversified farm. And then I also am the tribal lands senior coordinator for the National Wildlife Federation.

RENÉE FELTZ: Can you start at the beginning, when you heard that there was a spill on the river, and take me from there to the present?

ALEXIS BONOGOFSKY: Well, I—no one told me about the spill. I actually woke up on Saturday morning, and I walked down into our pastures, because I had heard that the Yellowstone River was going to be flooding, and I wanted to see if our pastures were flooded. I walked down there, and I could smell hydrocarbons. It was pretty intense. And you know what that smells like when you live in a place with three refineries. So I smelled that, and I was kind of wondering what was going on. And our pastures were flooded, so, you know, I couldn’t get down too far toward the river. So I came back up, and I put on my waders. And I walked back down there, and I found just globs of oil everywhere in our summer pasture and in our wetland area. We call them sloughs up here. They’re places where, when the river gets high, water backs up into them. And so, our whole bottom pastures were basically flooded with oil. And I looked on my phone, and I saw—I went to our local newspaper and saw that there had been an oil spill and that there was a pipeline running underneath the Yellowstone River that had ruptured. And that’s when I knew. We received no calls from local or state officials. We received no calls from Exxon. The sheriff just told people that they did a reverse 9/11 call, but neither me nor my parents received any call that let us know that this oil was down there. They did evacuations further upstream for people who were right next to the oil spill. But none of us downstream actually knew that this had happened until that morning.

So, we were told in the paper to call Exxon’s claim line. And it was an 800 number. So I called the claim line and basically got a woman who didn’t know anything, who took my name, asked if I was having any health problems, and then asked what I was calling about and what sort of impacts I was seeing. I asked her questions about my safety, my health safety, also if my goats were going to have any sort of health effects from this, if I should remove them from the property. I asked here when the cleanup crews were going to be there. I asked a bunch of questions, and she had no answers. And so, I called the Montana Department of Environmental Quality. They told me to call my local disaster and emergency services, the county level people. I called him. I got an answering machine. You know, we made calls all day on Saturday, and we never got to talk to anyone that knew anything.

So we finally saw on the local news that there was a cleanup crew towards Laurel, so we actually got into our car and drove towards Laurel, and we talked to a cleanup crew there just to get some answers. You know, they—we just were like, “Hey, we have oil on our place. We don’t know what to do.” And the cleanup crew was great. They gave us a number for a local Exxon PR person. And she never answered the phone when we called here. We finally got a call from, you know, a person in Exxon that basically took our questions again. He said he didn’t know anything. He couldn’t answer our questions. And, you know, for us, it’s like, “Well, for an oil company, you guys don’t know anything about oil,” because we wanted to know what was in it, our—is our health at risk, what do we need to know, and no one would answer our questions. It felt like they were just covering—covering their own butts, basically. And I—you know, that was our Saturday.

And so, Sunday, we get up, and we find out from a local reporter that they’re going to have a press conference at their—at the hotel they were all staying at. So we drove down to the Crown Plaza and went to the second floor, where they were having this press conference. And the security for Exxon told us we had to leave. He said we weren’t press, and we didn’t have press credentials, so we couldn’t be there. We had local officials there. They didn’t stand up for us. They didn’t say that, “Hey, these are landowners that are impacted. They deserve to be there.” They basically closed the conference room door on us, where they did a press conference. And we were told to sit outside, and they gave us a phone number to call into to listen to the press conference, but we couldn’t ask any questions.

So then, after that, one of their PR people said, “Well, the president of the oil company—or the oil pipeline company would like to meet with you.” And so, we went to have a meeting with him, and we wanted to record it, just for our own, you know, information and to make sure that what he was saying would be, you know, consistent with what they were saying to the public. And they wouldn’t let us record it. They said, “If you want to have an open conversation, then we—you know, put that away,” basically. So, we met with him, and he basically gave us talking points about how they were going to take care of it, and he was sorry for the inconvenience, even though this is a huge, devastating—you know, it’s just devastating for our farm, and he kept calling it an “inconvenience” and an “incident.” And they said we were—they regret the release. You know, the words they were using were very tame compared to what is actually happening here. And we left without any real resolution and—but all of his PR people kept taking our names and numbers, and they said that they would get a cleanup crew down right away.

So we go home and called the people who were going to come down to start cleaning up. And they got here, and they spent about two hours here, putting down booms and putting some absorbent pads down. But they ran out of material. It was a lot worse than we had thought before. And the floodwater still hadn’t really receded, so people—you know, it’s hard to try to work down there. They said they’d come back Monday, but we didn’t see anyone yesterday. And I called someone back from Exxon, and they said they would send someone out this morning. So they did show up this morning with boats and more absorbent materials.

But, you know, the damage is done, and, you know, our place, our soil, is soaked in oil, and our plants are covered in oil, and we can’t graze our goats down there, and we need that pasture land for our goats to make it through this year. And we can’t cut our hay in the pasture with the—that was flooded. So we’re pretty—we’re kind of reeling right now, and we’re trying to figure out what we need to do next. But it’s been basically three full days of calling people and trying to figure out what’s going on.

The president of the oil pipeline company just told people that, to his knowledge, none of their air or water sampling has indicated any problems, which I find amazing that he would say something like that, considering there’s a massive oil spill into the river. He’s saying that there’s no water quality or air quality problems. But none of—no one has come down to our place to test our water or air quality. No one has done any soil sampling. So we don’t really even know what we’re dealing with.

RENÉE FELTZ: Can you talk about how close you are downstream from the spill? And you talked a little bit about the physical impact to your property, but what about the health impacts you’ve experienced?

ALEXIS BONOGOFSKY: So we’re about 10 river miles from the pipeline rupture—might be a little bit more, might be a little bit less. And, you know, the health impacts, I mean, that’s what we’ve been trying to figure out for three days, but I did have a personal experience with that. I had taken—I had been in the oil for, you know, two days, taking pictures and taking people down there. And then on Monday, when I took a film crew from a local TV station down, I just—when I smelled the oil, I just got this overwhelming sense of nausea and dizziness. And I, you know, went back up fairly quickly, and I had a really bad headache, and my throat was swollen, and, you know, I just felt really, really crappy. And I was going to just go lay down, but everyone made me go to the hospital. And the doctor diagnosed me with acute hydrocarbon exposure. So, he told me I couldn’t go near the oil after that. So I was sent home. There was nothing they could give me to clear out my system, except for drinking lots of water. So I am now unable to go down to where the oil is on our property, and if I smell it at all, some of the symptoms come back fairly—fairly quickly. But, you know—and everyone is exhausted and tired, and I think—you know, I asked the doctor, I was like, “Well, why was I impacted, and not my husband?” And he said everyone was different, so if your system can only take so much, that’s what you’re going to experience. So people—you know, everyone is going to have different reactions to it.

RENÉE FELTZ: Have you—do you feel comfortable drinking the water from your property?

ALEXIS BONOGOFSKY: We have been bringing in city water. We have a cistern on our house, so I’ve been comfortable drinking the city water. But I wouldn’t drink out of my well water, and that’s another problem, as all of our livestock depends on our well water. So we need to get someone down here to test our water and make sure that it’s not contaminated. So, I wouldn’t drink out of it, and I don’t like my livestock drinking out of it, but I don’t have any other choice right now.

RENÉE FELTZ: What kind of promises, if any, has Exxon made to you in terms of helping to clean up the—what sounds like pretty extensive damage to your property?

ALEXIS BONOGOFSKY: They keep telling us they’re going to restore it back to normal. And I keep telling them that’s impossible. The cleanup workers are great. You know, they know what they’re doing. But there is no way to get the oil completely out of our soil without removing the topsoil. They keep promising that they’re not going to leave until everything is back to normal and that they will be here until every drop of oil is gone. And I hope that’s true. I hope that they follow through. I mean, there are a lot of landowners who don’t have people on their property right now helping them clean up. And I think the only reason we have people on our property right now is that we’ve been fairly persistent with, you know, talking to Exxon and making sure that they are down here. So, I just worry that this spill is so extensive that all the landowners along the Yellowstone may not get the necessary attention that they need. And the thing with the Yellowstone is that the ecosystem is—extends further beyond the banks of the Yellowstone. We have so many wetlands that, you know, are now flooded with oil, that they can’t actually see all the oil damage. They have to go on foot down the river to actually make sure that they’re seeing all of the damage that has been done. And I—you know, I’m skeptical that they will spend the time needed to make sure that the Yellowstone is back to a semblance of what it was.

RENÉE FELTZ: I know Exxon turned off this pipeline a little while ago out of concern about the high waters in the river. Are you familiar with when they shut that down? And have you seen any or experienced any problems with this pipeline in the past, you know, before the current spill?

ALEXIS BONOGOFSKY: You know, I didn’t even know that this pipeline existed, honestly. We have—our area is fairly industrial. We’ve got lots of refineries. I think, in the back of my head, I knew there was pipelines that ran underneath the Yellowstone River, but this isn’t something we hear about on a regular basis. And so, when this happened, I was shocked, because I didn’t think this—it’s not something that you—that people here really think about. I’ve never experienced anything like this before, and I think everyone was pretty taken off guard by it.

RENÉE FELTZ: There’s been a lot of talk about what Exxon has said in terms of their picture of what’s occurred with the spill and what people who live there on the ground are seeing and experiencing. And I wondered if you had anything else to say about the contrast between what Exxon has described as what’s occurred with the spill and what you’ve experienced.

ALEXIS BONOGOFSKY: My perception of what has been going on is that Exxon keeps saying that “everything is OK, we’re taking care of it,” and that “it’s not as bad as you think it is.” And the reality is, is that it’s worse than they say it is. It is already in North Dakota. They’ve already sighted oil in North Dakota, which is, you know, 300 and—over 300 miles from where we are. And, you know, that landowners are feeling completely isolated right now, and Exxon keeps saying, “We’re taking care of people.” And, you know, I have to say, like right now, Exxon is down at my place cleaning it up, but I’ve talked to other landowners that haven’t been as persistent as I have and my husband has, that there is no one on their place. And it is probably—they probably have worse damage than we do. I just—the lack of honesty, transparency and accountability is fairly—I mean, that’s just what we’re seeing right now, is that what they’re saying to the press is that everything is OK, and it’s not OK. And most of the time, when the press come down and see what’s actually going on, they realize it.

And I hope that our state, local and federal agencies, instead of letting Exxon control everything, I hope that they step up and start actually conducting oversight and looking at all of the data that Exxon is collecting, getting the information about the landowners who have called into their hotline, and actually following up with people and making sure that the water and air quality and the soil quality levels are tested right now, so we have a good—so we have good data, so we don’t have to rely on Exxon for that.

RENÉE FELTZ: And then, the final thing I wanted to ask you is just what it’s been like, personally, to go through this ordeal after the spill and dealing with Exxon’s response.

ALEXIS BONOGOFSKY: It’s been exhausting, I have to say. I mean, we started it Saturday at 7:30, and I haven’t gotten hardly any sleep. We’ve been on the phone with people from 7:00 a.m. to midnight, trying to get answers and trying to coordinate people affected by this. And, you know, emotionally, it’s—you know, I grew up here on the farm, and I know this place. You know, I know every inch of it. And it is devastating to me to see what’s happened to it, and especially because I know that they can’t restore it to how it was. And they keep saying that they will, but they just—they don’t know that they can’t. Or they know that they can’t, but they have to say that.

And to call it an “inconvenience” is—it makes me angry. If they had a little bit more honesty and openness and said what this was, which is a devastating, you know, disaster, I would have more faith in them that they actually understood what’s happened and that they understood that they can’t take this back to normal. And, you know, what I realized the last four days is this isn’t going to end. You know, I keep—I keep thinking, you know, I’m going to have a few minutes to sit and think about what happened, and I just haven’t had that chance to sit down and kind of deal with it, I guess.

RENÉE FELTZ: Well, those were my questions, Alexis. Was there anything I didn’t ask about that you wanted to bring up?

ALEXIS BONOGOFSKY: I guess another thing that is really concerning to me is the wildlife impacts, because we manage our farm for wildlife and also for our livestock, so that they can go hand in hand. And the place where there’s oil on our property is a really diverse area with lots of diverse plant species and wildlife. And usually when you go down there in the evening, that’s all you can hear, is amphibians, and, you know, it’s frogs, it’s toads, a lot of insects, crickets and birds. And right now you walk down there at dusk, and you don’t hear anything. And the president of the oil pipeline said that there was no wildlife impacts, or that they’re minimal. And, you know, insects and little critters and amphibians, they soak up those toxins, and they can’t handle it. And, you know, Exxon keeps saying that they’re going to take this back to normal. Well, all the wildlife is gone. They’ve either moved or they’ve died. And I just don’t think the wildlife impacts are really being talked about, so that’s another huge concern of mine.

RENÉE FELTZ: Well, thanks so much for your time. I know it’s been very busy for you.

ALEXIS BONOGOFSKY: You’re welcome.

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