A lesson for landowners: How to deal with an oil spill


Alexis Bonogofsky on her farm on the Yellowstone River, in the aftermath of 2011 pipeline spill, pointing out oil in a slough.

Ah, memories. In July of 2011, my farm was flooded in oil from an Exxon pipeline that burst under the Yellowstone River. Landowners along the river grouped up pretty quickly since many of our families lived there for decades and together we went through months of dealing with cleanup workers, water and soil testing, chronic coughs and stress.

Now we sit back and watch you go through an oil spill. Although the circumstances are different, I can tell you these things shake out the same way, all over the country.

An oil pipeline breaks. You are told everything is under control. It doesn’t matter if it is or isn’t, that is what they’ll tell you. You and your neighbors complain of the smell of oil and you are told that you are wrong. Everything is going to be fine.

Don’t worry about your health because being exposed to hydrocarbons is just like being sprayed by a skunk. (This is what we were told in 2011. Yes, I shit you not, this is what RiverStone Health, our public health agency, stated in a press release. Funny though, I’ve been sprayed by skunks and it has never sent me to the hospital with headaches, nausea and breathing problems. I mean, I guess I might end up in the hospital feeling sick if I had my face in a skunk’s butt when it sprayed but luckily I’ve never found myself in that situation).

They always low-ball the estimates of the amount of oil spilled in the beginning and then that amount gradually increases as time goes on and fewer people are paying attention.

Getting answers takes longer than it should. Your questions about the spill are directed to the company instead of the government regulators. Maybe you called your Department of Emergency Services and no one answered or you were directed to call the oil company instead. The folks from the EPA tell you they are taking care of it and even though you drank some benzene, it’s not enough to hurt you. You trust them because they’re the EPA or you don’t trust them because they’re the EPA; both feelings are probably legitimate.

Politicians take tours of the site. They walk around, point in different directions and nod their heads solemnly. The political class will use it to make their political arguments and forget that there are actual people impacted by the spill. Most people from the company and government agencies you deal with are probably really nice and want to help.

The oil spill will get some press coverage but the amount of attention will correspond with the location of the spill. In your case, it is the Yellowstone River (an iconic river in Montana that everyone in America knows), but, let’s be honest, it is east of Billings.

Here’s the truth. Once the oil is out, the oil is out. The damage is done. Their booms and white napkins do a little but not enough. Most of oil that is in the river is in the river for good. There is a lot of activity but most of it is for show and to make people feel better. That is the truth.

Here are some things that all of us landowners on the Yellowstone River realized during the 2011 Exxon oil spill that you might consider.

If you feel sick, go to the hospital. In 2011, after two days of being on my farm that was covered in oil, I had a headache that wouldn’t go away, I felt nauseated, I had an awful cough and I felt like fainting. I never go to the hospital, but that Monday, on July 4, 2011, I went to the emergency room.

It is important that you go for many reasons. One, you probably need medical care and two, if no one goes to the hospital and we all keep being stoic Northerners, other people decide not to go. In 2011, I knew a lot of people who told me they had the symptoms that I had but never went to the hospital because Exxon and the agencies kept telling them that the oil couldn’t make them sick. What we do affects everyone around us.

You are your own advocate. No one will do that for you. The oil company and government want this to go away as fast as possible. Do your own research, go to public meetings and ask tough questions to the politicians, government agency staff and the company.

I know it is hard to stick your neck out in small communities. I know it is hard to talk to reporters. You don’t want to piss off neighbors or be the squeaky wheel. But, it is your responsibility to advocate for your community and to be a voice for the people that can’t or won’t speak out. You deserve answers and you know when you are hearing bullshit, so call them on it.

Don’t assume people know what they are doing. It is a natural tendency to trust people who are in a position of authority. We want to believe that someone has everything under control. What I’ve learned over the years is that isn’t always the case.

The folks working in Glendive on this spill may or may not know what they are doing. In 2011 I was told by various people that oil was organic so it was safe for my livestock to eat, that oil was essentially a fertilizer and our grass would come back greener than ever and the agronomist they hired told me that that you can drink Roundup and you’d be fine.

Contact Gov. Bullock’s office and tell him that you need and want the state of Montana to lead in the oil spill response. There are politics at play here. The state needs to hear from you and they need to know that they should advocate for you. The Montana Department of Environmental Quality did an outstanding job in 2011 and they know how to deal with these spills.  You can email the governor at Bullock@mt.gov. 

If you need help or have questions, please call me and I can connect you to independent oil spill experts, people who have gone through the same thing and anyone else that can help advocate for the community. My email is

abonogofsky@gmail.com and my number is 406-698-4720. Don’t hesitate to call.

A slightly different version of this piece first appeared on Alexis Bonogofsky’s blog, East of Billings. Bonogofsky is a fourth-generation Montanan, goat rancher and hunter who lives and works along the Yellowstone River near Billings. She manages the Tribal Lands Partnership Program for the National Wildlife Federation and is currently a Cultural Freedom Fellow with the Lannan Foundation.



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