On the second day of July in 2011, I walked down to my hay fields to see if the Yellowstone River had flooded its banks. It had -- but so had crude oil leaking from Exxon’s Silvertip Pipeline, which runs underneath the river upstream from my farm south of Billings, Montana.
That was the beginning of months of dealing with cleanup workers, water and soil testing, while my family suffered from chronic coughs and a lot of stress. In the end, it was determined that 1,500 barrels of oil had spilled into the river.
Three and a half years later, last month on Jan. 17, another oil pipeline broke under the Yellowstone River, 200 miles downstream from me and close to the eastern Montana town of Glendive. It is estimated that around 39,000 gallons spilled into the frozen river; we will probably see this number climb as time goes on.
The spill in Glendive happened despite the promises made by our politicians that oil pipelines would be made safer, and despite the passage of the Pipeline Safety, Regulatory Certainty, and Job Creation Act of 2011. Really, not much has changed.
Here’s how oil spills work. An oil pipeline breaks and the public is the last to know. You are told everything is under control. When you start to feel sick, you’re told not to worry -- there is no threat to public health. Getting answers always takes longer than it should. The state’s Department of Emergency Services seems incapable of dealing with the spill and directs all public questions to the oil company.
People from the Environmental Protection Agency arrive. They tell you that even though you drank some benzene, it’s not enough to hurt you. You trust them because they’re the EPA, or else you don’t trust them, because they’re the EPA.
Politicians take tours of the site, nod their heads solemnly and pose for photos so they can show how much they care. The oil spill will get press coverage but the amount of attention will correspond with the location of the spill and the political importance of the residents affected. In Glendive’s case, it helps that the Yellowstone River is an iconic river in Montana, but let’s be honest here: Glendive is a small town and it’s in eastern Montana, two strikes against it.
The company lowballs the estimate 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. In a river oil spill, once the oil is out, it is out. The company’s booms and white napkins do a little, but not enough. Most of the oil that is in the river is in the river for good.
Here are some of the hard-earned lessons that landowners like me learned about pipeline oil spills:
Being exposed to oil can make you sick. That may seem obvious, but citizens are usually told that public health is not threatened. So when people do get sick, many don’t go to the hospital. I finally went to the emergency room with acute hydrocarbon exposure. (If people do not seek treatment, there is no record of the public health impacts from oil spills, which can be severe.)
You have to be your own advocate. You need to do research, go to public meetings and ask tough questions. It can be hard to confront people, and that is especially true in smaller communities. It is your responsibility to advocate for your community and to be a voice for the people who can’t, or won’t, speak out.
Don’t assume that the people running the cleanup operations -- either from the government or the oil company -- know what they are doing. In 2011, I was told by various people who were part of the cleanup that oil was organic so it was safe for my livestock to eat, that oil was essentially a fertilizer, and that our grass would come back greener than ever. Our public health agency even sent out a press release that said being exposed to oil was like being sprayed by a skunk.
Both of the recent oil spills in the Yellowstone River were preventable. Yet oil spills will keep happening to communities all over the West until politicians on both sides of the aisle decide to take pipeline safety seriously and not just pay lip service to the changes needed in oversight and regulation of oil companies.
Until then, we’re on our own.
Alexis Bonogofsky, a fourth-generation Montanan, is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a column service of High Country News. She works for the National Wildlife Federation in Billings, Montana, and writes a blog www.eastofbillings.com.
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