From: Arkansas Times
It's all fun and games until the world's richest corporation spills 200,000 gallons of goop in your backyard.
Two weeks ago, it might have been hard to imagine sleepy Mayflower, population 1,631, at the center of a growing international debate over corporate influence, the multi-billion dollar Keystone XL pipeline project and the environment. That was before ExxonMobil's Pegasus Pipeline burst in the backyard of a middle-class house in the Northwoods subdivision there on March 29. Though the site around the breach was soon clamped down tight, video and photographs taken just after the rupture show a black horror emerging from behind houses and pouring over perfect lawns before snaking down the gutters of Starlite Drive like something out of a nightmare. An Exxon spokesperson said the current estimate is that 5,000 barrels of Wabasca heavy crude — or 210,000 gallons — spilled from the breach.
From there, at least some of the crude went into the storm drains and ditches, crossed under Interstate 40, and drained into a sensitive wetland area and a picturesque, nameless cove, lined with fishing cabins, that lies south of Highway 89. That cove connects to the main body of Lake Conway through a series of culverts. Those culverts were quickly blocked with plywood and gravel — before, officials say, oil contaminated the lake — but they can't stay blocked forever.
Families in 22 homes in the subdivision had to evacuate to area motels; by Monday, 10 days after the spill, Exxon said four families could return, but the state Department of Health recommended that they wait until air quality tests confirmed it was safe. Residents Kathryn Chunn and Kimla Green of 38 Ledrick Circle have filed a class-action lawsuit against Exxon to recover the loss in the value of their property.
At this early stage of the game, real answers to what's going on in Mayflower would be hard to come by, even if a mega-corporation wasn't on the ground in full damage control mode, and local and county officials hadn't largely ceded jurisdiction to them, with workers and Faulkner County deputies barring the public and media from the scene. The emerging picture, though — a picture that includes wildlife coated in oil, devastated ecosystems in ExxonMobil's "restricted areas," residents who say they are sick, and the still-ticking time bomb on the shores of Central Arkansas's primary water source, Lake Maumelle, where the Pegasus Pipeline comes within 600 feet of the shoreline — might be even uglier than a neighborhood coated in crude.
Even a week after the spill, the smell of crude oil lingers near the cove area east of I-40, a turpentine/diesel stench that makes your head go a little swimmy if you breathe it too long. Residents we talked to say it was much worse right after the spill happened, but it still makes you wonder how the hive of more than 600 ExxonMobil responders who've been working there 24/7 since the pipeline rupture, rushing around in hardhats and hazmat suits and working at night in a swamp lit by tall, powerful lights, can stand it, especially given that many of them we saw weren't wearing respirators.
Howard "Duck" Sentney lives near Dam Road, which divides the cove from Lake Conway. A former Army survival instructor who has lived on Lake Conway for more than a decade, Sentney said the smell of oil was almost unbearable soon after the breach.
"The first thing we smelled was like natural gas," Sentney said. "My nose was burning, my eyes were burning, it gave me a scratchy throat. Then all of a sudden Friday evening, the smell penetrated into the house. ... Friday evening and Saturday evening, it was bad. Sunday evening, we had a cookout and Sunday night it ran us off the porch."
As we spoke, a helicopter was flying slow circles over the cove. It was probably owned by ExxonMobil or someone working for the company, since on April 1, the Federal Aviation Administration had issued a NOTAM, or Notice to Airmen, which placed a five-nautical-mile flight restriction around the Mayflower site. All aircraft flying below 1,000 feet, the NOTAM said, were prohibited from entering the area unless given permission by Tom Suhrhoff, an aviation advisor with ExxonMobil. The ban came after KARK-TV sent a helicopter to capture aerial footage of the spill. Many critics of the response immediately seized on the NOTAM as an ExxonMobil effort to create a "media blackout" of the site, but the company has denied that anything other than air safety over the spill was the goal. The FAA ban was lifted April 5.
Sentney said his sinuses have been acting up and he's had a sore throat since the spill. As a homeowner, he wonders how the spill will affect the property values on homes along Dam Road. An avid fisherman, he wonders if it will be OK to eat the fish from Lake Conway in coming years. "It's a big question," he said. "I fish quite a bit out there and we eat a lot of fish. So, is it going to be safe? ... Personally, I think Exxon is not going to tell us the truth. They've got more money than we've got."
Sentney's fears about the future quality of the lake are shared by biologist Dr. Ben Cash, a herpetology specialist at the University of Central Arkansas who has taken on the job of cleaning snakes that have been rescued from the marsh that feeds the cove. (Wildlife Response Services, hired by Exxon to clean the dozens of mallards, teal, coot, beavers, muskrats, raccoons, turtles, nutria, grebes, squirrels and ducks too coated to identify in a facility in Sherwood, draws the line at snakes; it's delivered cottonmouths, water and mud snakes to Game and Fish to take to Cash.) "We know from other events like this that there is wildlife that moves back into the degraded habitat," picking up contaminants and spreading them, Cash said. Also, he said, "there may not be black crude" in Lake Conway, but the naphthalene in the crude will leach into the cove's water, which can't be fully blocked from the lake.
Today, the focus is on clean-up. "What will be important," Cash said, is what kind of shape the area is in "two years from now."
Ryan Senia has lived on North Starlite, a few houses away from where the breach occurred, since 2009. He said his house was actually listed for sale on the day of the pipeline rupture, but he's since taken down the listing.
Senia said he was at work in Little Rock when he got a text message about the spill from a friend and rushed to Mayflower to find his neighborhood already blocked off. He was able to get in to his house from 10 a.m. to noon March 30, the day after the spill. Oil had run up his driveway and seeped into the edge of his lawn.
Like the press and public, Senia was warned away by local authorities acting under the instructions of Exxon. "When I came out, there was a police officer there and he said, 'If you don't have everything you need right now, if you leave, you can't come back.' " He said he tried to go back to his house with a journalist in tow on April 1, but was turned away by sheriff's deputies. "It's easier to get onto a military base than it is to get into that neighborhood right now," he said.
Senia, who claims the neighborhood's proximity to the oil pipeline was not disclosed to him when he bought his house, said he thinks no one will want to buy a home in the Northwoods subdivision for a very long time. He estimated that half the neighbors he's talked to said they want to move out.
"Even if not a single drop of oil got on my property, because my address is on that street, I just think no one is going to buy that house now," he said. "Even if I'm not personally scared of contamination, a buyer might be unless there is someone to document the cleanup process, and know that everything was removed."
Since the spill, Senia's been educating himself about pipeline safety. He said he hopes other residents will talk to reporters who are trying to cover the spill.
Attorney General Dustin McDaniel toured the Northwoods subdivision on April 3, and called the scene "very disturbing."