Citizens ask Exxon to pay its $1.7 million fine for Yellowstone oil spill

2013-07-01T14:20:00Z 2013-07-17T09:12:05Z Citizens ask Exxon to pay its $1.7 million fine for Yellowstone oil spillBy ZACH BENOIT zbenoit@billingsgazette.com The Billings Gazette

A group of more than 50 Billings area residents gathered on the north bank of the Yellowstone River at Coulson Park on Monday, chanting, waving signs and making a simple demand.

Holding signs that said "Pay Your Fine" and "Take Responsibility," the group asked ExxonMobil Corp. to pay in full $1.7 million in penalties proposed by the federal government in relation a July 2011 spill that dumped 63,000 gallons of crude oil into the Yellowstone River.

"Today we're asking for not only individual responsibility, but corporate responsibility," said state Rep. Margie MacDonald, who represents House District 54, part of which sits on the Yellowstone.

Members of the National Wildlife Federation, Northern Plains Resource Council, Montana Conservation Voters and Yellowstone Valley Citizens Council organized the rally.

The 2011 spill affected about 70 miles along the river, from Laurel and moving east, and impacted fish and wildlife after flooding exposed and damaged the 12-inch Silvertip pipeline running underneath the river.

The Department of Transportation's Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration issued the $1.7 million fine after Exxon spent $135 million in cleanup efforts, saying investigators believed that Exxon made a series of poor decisions before and immediately after the spill.

Exxon has challenged that decision and hearing is scheduled for July 17 in Washington, D.C., to discuss that protest.

At Monday's gathering, speakers said Exxon made billions of dollars in profits last year, and last quarter, and that it needs to be held accountable for endangering Billings and the region.

"We as citizens of Yellowstone County want Exxon to be good neighbors and take responsibility for their actions," said Eileen Morris, with the Yellowstone Valley Citizens Council.

Parts of Alexis Bonogofsky's family land on the south bank of the river was slicked over by oil from the spill. Speaking to the crowd, she challenged Montana Sens. Max Baucus and Jon Tester and Rep. Steve Daines to push for the original PHMSA ruling.

"So, Exxon doesn’t want to pay its fine,” Bonogofsky said. “Well, I didn’t want to wake up one morning to see my family's fields and pastures covered in oil."

Exxon said it responded appropriately to the spill, took proper precautions ahead of time and cooperated during the cleanup efforts.

A statement from ExxonMobil Pipeline Co. sent to The Gazette on Monday said it is disappointed in the PHMSA report and penalties.

"We committed to learn from the incident and have since applied the learning to our remote control valve procedures and operator training as recommended by PHMSA," the statement said. "We completed three horizontal directional drills under the Yellowstone River. We will continue to work with the Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration on any follow-up actions."

The meeting — held on the two-year anniversary of the spill — started and ended with a few group chants asking Exxon to pay the fine.

"Beep beep. Toot toot. Hey Exxon, get off that loot," they chanted, and "Three, five, seven, nine. Exxon ought to pay that fine."

Speakers said it's important that the company be held responsible.

"I would like to call on them to be a good citizen, to not have a double standard and to pay their fine," MacDonald said.

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