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10,000 toothbrushes?

Time to stop making excuses for Big Oil



Montana has now joined the long list of states and regions where Big Oil has contaminated swaths of water and land with leaks and spills.

In Montana's most recent disaster, a ruptured Exxon Mobil pipeline that brings oil to refineries in Laurel ruptured and gushed an estimated 1,000 barrels of raw crude oil into the Yellowstone River and on to adjoining lands. Gov. Brian Schweitzer has been in bed with Big Oil for years. Sadly, we now get to live with the results of that government-corporate collusion.

Despite the fact that Montana already has more than 13,000 miles of pipelines, Schweitzer wants more pipelines and more transmission lines in his drive to turn Montana into an energy colony for the nation. There's been no shortage of promises that it will all be "done right" under what he says is strict regulatory scrutiny that will protect Montana's pristine environment. The sad truth, as evidenced by the pipeline rupture, is that it's nothing more than cheap political theater to provide public cover while "gettin' 'er done" for the rapacious energy companies whose bottom line is far from environmental protection. The political drivel is fooling no one. The goal of Exxon Mobil, as in virtually all megacorporations, is first and foremost to deliver profits for their stockholders and even more disparate and bloated salaries to their CEOs.

America has been on a corporate deregulation binge for more than 30 years, starting under President Reagan and continuing right up to and through President Obama's tenure, with both Democrats and Republicans finding every reason to go along with corporate desires for less oversight and more self-monitoring. The excuses, like the phony assurances of safety, are endless: We can save money by cutting regulatory bureaucracies; the companies don't want accidents, that just costs them money. And then there's the one we don't hear from the lips of corporate-friendly politicians: "They have a lot of high-paid lobbyists and give us big campaign contributions."

So let's see how self-regulation actually works. Exxon's pipeline was last inspected by the company in 2009. After reviewing the company's data, the U.S. Department of Transportation issued a "warning letter" to Exxon citing seven problems, including two for insufficient corrosion inspection training and emergency response. The line was shut down in May of this year "over concerns of the rising Yellowstone," but Exxon decided it was safe and continued to pump oil through the 20-year old line. And then, Friday, it blew out and irreparably polluted hundreds of miles of the Yellowstone, the longest un-dammed river in the Lower 48 states.

At some point we have to wake up to the consequences of this foolish and failed policy that allows corporations to hoodwink us about their "safety" precautions until disaster strikes.

That point is now all too clear to Alexis Bonogofsky and her husband Mike Scott who own Blue Creek Farms on the banks of the Yellowstone, where they raise livestock, hay, and vegetables. They say a picture is worth a thousand words: you can see what Bonogofsky and her husband found when they surveyed their land for oil damage, on Bonogofsky's Facebook page.

Both are now ill. Bonogofsky and a neighbor have been hospitalized after being diagnosed with "acute hydrocarbon exposure." Their doctor has warned them to stay away from the oil—but that's tough to do since the crude has washed up far into their fields, carried on the high waters of the flooding Yellowstone.

The young ranch couple can't seem to get information about what, exactly, is in Exxon's spilled crude. According to Sunday's Billings Gazette, Bonogofsky and Scott "called Exxon Mobil'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 [they were] referred back to ExxonMobil's claim line." Scott told Exxon's field representative to his face, "I want to know what we could have potentially been exposed to, and if it's harmful." But so far, he says, "As landowners, we didn't get any information."

Schweitzer is making a big show of how he's going to make things right, saying, "If it means we are going to have 10,000 people with toothbrushes scrubbing every rock to make sure that the Yellowstone River is wholly restored, we will." Perhaps Schweitzer never heard of a place called Valdez, Alaska, or a drunken captain who ran his Exxon tanker onto the rocks, spilling more than a half-million barrels of crude oil into the sea and fouling 1,300 miles of shoreline. That happened in 1989, and 22 years later, it has yet to recover to its pre-spill environmental condition or wildlife and fisheries productivity.

As the Yellowstone crests and then recedes, the oil will pollute everything from the high-water mark on down. That's the nature of oil—it floats on water. Toothbrushes won't get it off the trees, or the grasses, or out of the riparian soils, nor will Schweitzer get it off the geese, the pelicans, or the turtles.

Schweitzer has been a big booster of allowing Exxon to ship mega-loads of oil production equipment to Alberta's tar sands on Montana's two-lane highways. He also cheers on the proposed Keystone XL pipeline, which would be two and a half times larger than Exxon's ruptured line and transport tar sands crude across Montana. We can only hope when he finally gets a first-hand look at the destruction such corporate failures engender, he might reconsider his far-too-cozy relationship with Big Oil. His allegiance should be to Montanans, not Exxon Mobil.

Helena's George Ochenski rattles the cage of the political establishment as a political analyst for the Independent. Contact Ochenski at

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