Should the state of Montana take the lead in the Glendive oil spill?

Yesterday, I wrote about my experience during the 2011 Yellowstone River Exxon oil spill. I advised people to email Governor Bullock and request the state of Montana take the lead in communication with the public and the oil spill response. I was remiss in leaving out why I think that is necessary. On July 2, 2011 I woke up and walked down to my hay fields. I found my pastures flooded with crude oil. No one called us. We were not evacuated. I'll refrain from sharing with you what I said at that moment but I'm pretty sure it made my goats blush. The first day we called Yellowstone County Department of Emergency Services (DES) and got their answering machine. We called the Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) and they told us to call DES. We called our County Commissioners. We called the Exxon hotline. Then, while watching the news that evening, we saw that there was a clean up crew near the pipeline break in Laurel. We got in the pickup and drove to them. When we arrived there were three guys sitting in white lawn chairs. That was the oil spill response the first day. Three guys. They were very nice but not particularly helpful. The next morning a reporter from the Billings Gazette called and told us that there was a meeting planned at the Crowne Plaza between the head of the Exxon Pipeline Company and the Yellowstone County Commissioners. We went down to the Crowne Plaza and asked where the meeting was going to be held because we had some questions. In the hallway, there were local journalists, Duane Winslow from DES, John Ostlund and Bill Kennedy from the Yellowstone County Commission and Exxon Mobil Pipeline CEO Gary Prussing with his entourage. The officials from the state of Montana and the EPA had not arrived yet. Oh yeah, and there was a big security guard in front of the boardroom door. We were immediately asked to leave. We were told this was not a public meeting and only press and our County Commissioners and DES was allowed in the room. If you aren't yet aware of Montana's amazing open meeting law, you should become very familiar, maybe even keep a printout of it in your pocket since it really helps in situations like this. As we were being "asked" to leave by the security guard, our elected County Commissioners just slowly turned around and walked into the boardroom. They didn't stand up for us. They didn't say one word. The only thing that stopped us from being forcibly removed was the press. If journalists hadn't been there witnessing the whole thing we would have been thrown out. During the next week, I watched as the EPA and Exxon held joint public meetings where you weren't sure who was representing Exxon and who was representing the EPA. They sounded the same and they said the same things. At one point a guy named Jimmy James from Exxon told us that ingesting oil was similar to eating a crayon. You know, he said, kids eat crayons all the time. EPA defended Exxon, Exxon defended the EPA. They told us it was "all going to be ok," that they were "doing everything they could," that "we need you calm down."  Personally, I find it hard to calm down when I'm being denied access to meetings concerning the oil on my farmland. There is a lot that happened after that, which I won't go into right now, but needless to say, that set the stage for how the public was treated during the oil spill. That is, until Governor Schweitzer made the decision to remove the state of Montana from the joint command center Exxon had formed at the Crowne Plaza. So why did Schweitzer do that? Here is an excerpt from the USA Today article that covered the split.

Security guards working for Exxon Mobil Corp. have closely guarded access to the command post on the second floor of the Crowne Plaza Hotel in Billings, where the Environmental Protection Agency and other federal agencies also are stationed. Attempts by The Associated Press to talk to government officials there in the first days after the spill were denied.

Schweitzer says the company and EPA have defied state open government laws by denying public access. So on Friday, he opened an alternate state-run Yellowstone River Oil Spill Information Center, underscoring mounting tensions over the pipeline rupture that has dirtied parts of the scenic waterway.

"Montana has a much higher standard than Exxon Mobil when it comes to transparency," Schweitzer said. "We won't be involved in secret meetings and secret documents." - USA TODAY 

Once the state of Montana took control of the situation everything changed for the landowners. All of a sudden we had access to every document we wanted without having to go through an arduous Freedom of Information Act process with the EPA. All the records the state of Montana had were ours too. We had access to our own independent soil and water testing. We could walk into any meeting without a security guard trying to stop us. We had DEQ staff showing up at our farm to help us butcher chickens and tell us how the remediation was going. Every morning I could talk to someone about my concerns. Information was flowing, people were being honest, DEQ staff was allowed to say exactly what they thought. At one point, when Exxon tried to keep me from the Crowne Plaza command center, Tom Livers stopped them and took me in. I'm not sure he remembers doing it but I've always appreciated that. Thank you, Tom. This is what I mean when I say I want the state of Montana to take the lead in Glendive. When the state of Montana takes the lead in the right way the public is in control. I'm sure it isn't necessary to do this in the flashy way that Schweitzer did but there are ways for the state to make sure they are in control and the public is getting all the information they want. In a sense, what Governor Schweitzer did was what every politician should strive to do. He returned the power back to us, the public, and took it away from Exxon and the EPA. I'm sure that Schweitzer did what he did for many reasons, not just because he knew it was the right thing to do. Honestly, I don't care what his intentions were during the oil spill. All I know is he helped us when we needed it. I'm not telling you what is or isn't happening in Glendive. All I know is what happened to us. Bridger Pipeline is not Exxon so there are probably not security guards keeping you out of public meetings. Maybe everything is going well and there is a high level of transparency and openness. I really hope that is the case. But in my experience, when something like this happens, the tendency of the government agencies and politicians is to withdraw from the public and to keep information from us. If you are not getting the answers you need or want, let me know.  

3 Comments on “Should the state of Montana take the lead in the Glendive oil spill?

  1. Pingback: A Citizen’s Guide To Oil Spills: A message to the residents of Glendive | east of billings

  2. Anyone who believes anything the oil companies say is putting their life, health and land in jeopardy. I am so glad you are sharing this. And I have reposted on FB and Twitter.