Oiled, soiled and spoiled 

What happened when Montana’s Yellowstone River turned black–and how that environmental disaster is influencing pipelines nationwide

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“Everything was black”

Alexis Bonogofsky rolled out of bed early July 2, 2011, put on her waders and strolled across her ranch to check on the goats. Her property runs for about a mile along the banks of the Yellowstone River, and the water was raging that morning. The hayfield, the summer pasture, patches of wetland—the flood had pooled in every low spot within a stones-throw of the river. Bonogofsky began wading across the hayfield. That’s when she smelled something peculiar, something putrid, something wholly out of place among the very cattails and cottonwoods she’d known since childhood.

She smelled oil.

As she edged closer to the adjacent pasture, her legs brushed past gobs of the stuff. Where the water lapped against grass, a line of black film had formed along the vegetation. But the worst was the smell.

“It was overwhelming,” Bonogofsky says.

Bonogofsky had no idea where the oil had come from. In hindsight, she says, it probably made sense that there were pipelines under the Yellowstone. Billings is home to several refineries, after all, among them ConocoPhillips, Cenex and ExxonMobil. But in all the years she’d lived on the property—childhood, back when her parents owned it, and the intervening years since her move back to Montana—she never gave much thought to any sort of industrial dangers.

She pulled out her phone and searched the web for some clue as to why her field was suddenly the site of an apparent environmental disaster. The Billings Gazette had a blurb about a ruptured oil pipeline in Laurel. She knew immediately that was it.

Bonogofsky called her partner, environmental activist Mike Scott, and together they herded their goats into a field closer to the house. The Gazette’s write-up included a number for landowners to call if they noticed oil on their property. It was an 800-number belonging to ExxonMobil. Bonogofsky called.

“The number was actually for an insurance firm,” she recalls. “You got to this operator and the operator took your information: name, number, what you were calling about. ‘Someone will get back to you right away,’ she tells me. And the person that calls me back is an insurance adjuster. It’s not even someone who says, ‘Hey, we think you should get away from the oil or get your livestock away from the oil.’ Nothing about safety. It was an insurance adjuster asking us what damages we had, and this was the first day. The river was still flooding, oil was still coming onto the property. And there’s this expectation that we were supposed to talk to somebody about what damages we had?”

What came next was a morning of phone tag. First Bonogofsky called Yellowstone County. She got an answering machine. It was Fourth of July weekend. Next she called the Montana Department of Environmental Quality. They told her to call her local emergency services number. Bonogofsky’s frustration began to grow. She and Scott spent the afternoon walking across their property, snapping photos and documenting the damage.

That evening, the local news showed footage of cleanup crews near Laurel. Bonogofsky and Scott piled into their truck and drove eight miles west to get answers. The first people they saw were sitting in lawn chairs next to a van on the side of the road, absorbent booms placed in the water near them to soak up the oil. She says they didn’t know much. It didn’t look to Bonogofsky like they even had adequate supplies to launch a sizable cleanup effort. She asked about her animals and whether they were in danger. The men told her, off the record, that she’d be wise to move livestock away from the contamination.

That was her first face-to-face encounter with anyone from ExxonMobil, Bonogofsky says.

Kit Charter’s story is strikingly similar. She and her husband live in Billings, but they have family property along the Yellowstone. When the news first broke July 2 that ExxonMobil’s Silvertip Pipeline had ruptured next to the south bank of Laurel’s Riverside Park, Charter drove to her spread to investigate. First she stopped off at the home of a close friend, George Nielsen. The smell of oil in his house was so overpowering, it nearly knocked Charter over. Nielsen felt sick, Charter says, so they left the house.

Health officials would later release a statement informing people that the fumes from the spill weren’t a major health concern. Shortly after the spill, Mike Scott told Huffington Post that Bonogofsky had been diagnosed with acute hydrocarbon exposure—typically a sign of hydrocarbon inhalation among residents in close proximity to oil spills. Symptoms include dizziness, nausea and trouble breathing.

Next Charter made the rounds of her riverside land. She used to let livestock graze the property, which had been in the family for about 100 years, but decided several years ago to restore the acreage to a pristine riparian state. She says they did it “for the birds and deer and fox and fish and bugs and whatever,” and they worked hard doing it too. What they found the morning of July 2 was startling.

“Everything was black,” she says.

The situation wasn’t any better at her cousin Kelly Goodman’s place. When the floodwaters finally began to subside, “the fence was black, the grass was black.” Charter still tries not to think about it. “You hate to bring back any of it, because then you’re mad for three days,” she says.

Answers weren’t easy to come by for landowners in the days after the Silvertip spill. Bonogofsky drove to ExxonMobil’s command center at the Crowne Plaza in Billings, but security guards turned her away.

“We wanted answers, like when is the cleanup going to start, is this dangerous, what are the health impacts, all this stuff,” Bonogofsky says. “So we went and we finally got a meeting with [ExxonMobil Pipeline Company President] Gary Pruessing. Because of that, I think, they sent a crew down to our place earlier than they would have.”

Exxon eventually replanted Bonogofsky’s hayfield. Last summer’s drought wiped it out again and now she has a field of dirt and no idea what to do with it. Hay was too expensive this fall. She had to sell some of her goats to get by. Worst of all is the emotional damage. Bonogofsky bought the ranch from her parents when she moved back to Montana. In a lot of ways, the Yellowstone is the very reason Bonogofsky came back home in the first place.

“It was bad, and it still is bad, and [for Exxon] to have this mentality of, ‘Oh, we can fix it’—no you can’t,” she says. “You changed the place, and we have to get it back.”

Bonogofsky says there are still black rings on the cottonwoods around her ranch, from where the oil soaked into the bark.

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  • Photo courtesy of Joan Churchill
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