Alexis Bonogofsky flew in overnight from Billings, Montana, to tell Nebraskans on Wednesday that oil pipelines do rupture and can harm farm and ranch operations.

Bonogofsky, a rancher and employee of the National Wildlife Federation, fought back tears as she described the rupture of an Exxon Mobil pipeline below the Yellowstone River in July of 2011 that flooded oil-contaminated water across pastures used to graze sheep and goats.

The equivalent of about 1,500 55-gallon barrels of oil were spilled, leaving her pastures a weedy mess that still haven’t fully recovered. Damage, overall, was estimated at $135 million for a 30-minute spill.

“You don’t clean up oil from moving water,” Bonogofsky said.

Several in the audience of about 180 people gave her a standing ovation following her testimony at a public meeting over the proposal to route the Keystone XL pipeline across Nebraska.

But there were also many at the Ralston Arena speaking in support of the pipeline, including a man who grew up servicing wells and pipelines in oil fields in the Kimball, Nebraska, area.

“People out there understand the oil industry,” said Dallen Juelfs, now of Lincoln. “They understand the risks, they understand the benefits, and there’s a lot more benefits than risks.”

And so it went over eight hours during the last meeting held by the Nebraska Public Service Commission to gather public input about the recently revived pipeline, which would transport oil from Canada’s oil sands region to refineries on the U.S. Gulf Coast set up to handle the thick crude.

The PSC will hold a formal, court-like hearing Aug. 7 through 11 on the proposed 275-mile route of the pipeline across Nebraska. The five-member commission has until Nov. 23 to decide whether the path — the same one approved by state environmental regulators in 2013 — is in the state’s “public interest.”

The state pipeline-siting law bars the commission from considering safety issues, “including the risk or impact of spills or leaks” from the pipeline. But that didn’t prevent most of the 99 people who testified Wednesday from voicing opinions about its relative safety or risks.

Proponents, who included two current and two former state senators, said oil pipelines were 400 times safer in transporting oil than railcars or trucks. Supporters also said that construction of the $8 billion pipeline would bring 4,000 to 5,000 well-paying, though temporary, construction jobs to the state.

“I have a family to feed. All I ask is, will you put me to work?” said Kenny Spencer of Omaha, an apprentice union heavy machinery operator, who’s hoping to work on the Keystone XL.

But opponents said there’s no question that the pipeline will eventually leak and harm farm and ranch operations, and that the Keystone XL would create perhaps no more than 20 full-time jobs in the state. “No eminent domain for private gain” was the mantra from foes.

Leading pipeline opponent Jane Kleeb of Bold Nebraska also said that while there might be more frequent oil spills from rail shipments, leaks from pipelines involve much more oil and become much more damaging.

TransCanada has said it hopes to begin construction of the pipeline as early as next year, but opponents have pledged to file lawsuits and contest the taking of private land through eminent domain, thus delaying the project.

Reporter - Regional/state issues

Paul covers state government and affiliated issues. He specializes in tax and transportation issues, following the governor and the state prison system. Follow him on Twitter @PaulHammelOWH. Phone: 402-473-9584.

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