Oil-fouled farmland worries Blue Creek couple

2011-07-03T17:00:00Z 2011-07-04T08:40:07Z Oil-fouled farmland worries Blue Creek couple

By DONNA HEALY

Of The Gazette Staff‌

The Billings Gazette

Early Saturday morning, Alexis Bonogofsky drove a four-wheeler out to check on flooding along the bottomland of her family’s Blue Creek-area farm. She was stunned by the smell of crude-oil fumes.

In some areas, she saw concentrated globs of oil. In others, where the water was moving slowly, she could see a brown sheen or rainbow-colored oil slicks.

In high water, a ditch funnels water into two sloughs on their property. The water had flooded her 30-acre hay field and part of her larger summer pasture. Water from the pasture was draining into a pond on the family’s property.

Later Saturday, she and her partner, Mike Scott, put on chest-high waders and returned to the flooded area of their property.

“We were just walking through brown sheets of oil,” she said. They spent about three hours documenting the mess. As the water began to recede Sunday, the mud was shiny.

Bonogofsky grew up in the house where she now lives, and her parents, Debra and Thomas Bonogofsky, live next door. She and Scott run a small farming operation, raising about 150 goats and selling eggs and other food for the local market.

“If we would have just had the flood, that would have been one thing, or just had the oil spill that would have been one thing, but the combination of the two is pretty catastrophic,” Bonogofsky said.

She worries about health effects to her and her livestock from the chemicals contained in the crude oil. While her family relies on water from cisterns, the livestock depend on well water.

“We have a hay crop we maybe can’t cut, a pasture maybe we can’t use. Who’s going to check to see if we can or can’t graze them?” she asked Sunday morning.

On Saturday, she and Scott called ExxonMobil’s toll-free claim line several times. They found out the line was set up to take information, not dispense it. After calling state agencies and being referred back to ExxonMobil’s claim line, she decided to drive to Thiel Road to talk to cleanup crews.

“As landowners, we didn’t get any information,” said Bonogofsky, who works for the National Wildlife Federation. She assumed state government officials — not just ExxonMobil — would take information on her claims.

Their property along the river is heavily treed, and she figures contaminated topsoil might need to be removed.

“I don’t know how they would do that without taking down the trees,” she said.

While wading through land near the river, Scott shot a short video clip of Canada geese that tried to take off but couldn’t fly. When the river is high, the geese frequent the sloughs and slower backwaters where the oil is concentrated, Bonogofsky said. The couple also saw a spiny soft shell turtle slide off a log into an oil sheen on the water’s surface, a sight she said made her sick, because the turtles are a rare species.

“The thing is, they say ‘we’ll fix it,’ but they can’t fix it. They can re-mediate it and they can do things that try to go back to normal, but they can’t fix something like this.”

Bonogofsky said she went to bed about midnight Saturday and dreamed about refineries.

When she first found the oil on her family’s property, she saw ants and other insects clinging to the tops of the blades of grass above pooled oil. When she checked the same area Sunday morning, she said, the grass was brown and the insects were gone.

Contact Donna Healy at dhealy@billingsgazette.com or 657-1292.

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