New Documents Show Exxon Knew of Dangerous Contamination From Its Arkansas Tar Sands Spill, Yet Claimed Area Was Oil Free

by Jesse Coleman

May 20, 2013

Internal emails and documents have shown that Exxon attempted to claim Lake Conway and the cove was "oil-free," even while their internal testing showed the lake was contaminated with dangerous chemicals from the tar sands spill.

Oil from a spill nearly a mile away makes its way into water near Lake Conway April 1, 2013. Exxon's Pegasus pipeline, which can carry more than 90,000 barrels per day (bpd) of crude from Patoka, Illinois to Nederland, Texas, was shut down March 29, 2013 after a leak was discovered late in the afternoon in a subdivision near the town of Mayflower, Arkansas. The leak forced the evacuation of 22 homes. Exxon had no specific estimate of how much crude oil had spilled, but the company said 12,000 barrels of oil and water had been recovered. The company did not say how much of the total was oil and how much was water.

©Karen E. McCall/Greenpeace

On March 29, ExxonMobil, the most profitable company in the world, spilled at least 210,000 gallons of tar sands crude oil from an underground pipeline in Mayflower, Arkansas. The pipeline was carrying tar sands oil from Canada, which flooded family residences in Mayflower in thick tarry crude. Exxon’s tar sands crude also ran into Lake Conway, which sits about an eighth of a mile from where Exxon’s pipeline ruptured.

A new batch of documents received by Greenpeace in response to a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request to the Arkansas Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) has revealed that Exxon downplayed the extent of the contamination caused by the ruptured pipeline. Records of emails between Arkansas DEQ and Exxon depict attempts by Exxon to pass off press releases with factually false information. In a draft press release dated April 8, Exxon claims “Tests on water samples show Lake Conway and the cove are oil-free.” However, internal emails from April 6 show Exxon knew of significant contamination across Lake Conway and the cove resulting from the oil spill.

When the chief of Arkansas Hazardous Waste division called Exxon out on this falsehood, Exxon amended the press release. However, they did not amend it to say that oil was in Lake Conway and contaminant levels in the lake were rising to dangerous levels, as they knew to be the case. Instead, they continue to claim that Lake Conway is “oil-free.” For the record, Exxon maintains that the “cove,” a section of Lake Conway that experienced heavy oiling from the spill, is not part of the actual lake. Exxon maintains this distinction in spite of Arkansas Attorney General Dustin McDaniel saying unequivocally “The cove is part of Lake Conway. The water is all part of one body of water.” Furthermore, Exxon water tests confirmed that levels of Benzene and other contaminants rose throughout the lake, not just in the cove area.

Mayflower Water Sample Map 4 11 13 (Text)Though Exxon was eventually forced to redact their claim that the cove specifically was “oil-free,” the oil and gas giant has yet to publicly address the dangerous levels of Benzene and other contaminants their own tests have found in the body of Lake Conway. The Environmental Protection Agency and the American Petroleum Institute don’t agree on everything, but they do agree that the only safe level of Benzene, a cancer causing chemical found in oil, is zero. Benzene is added to tar sands oil to make it less viscous and flow more easily through pipelines. Local people have reported fish kills, chemical smells, nausea and headaches. Independent water tests have found a host of contaminants present in the lake.

According to Exxon’s data, 126,000 gallons of tar sands crude oil from the pipeline spill is still unaccounted for.

Exxon’s spill emanated from the Pegasus Pipeline, which like the proposed Keystone XL pipeline, connects the Canadian Tar Sands with refineries in the Gulf of Mexico.

Jesse Coleman

By Jesse Coleman

Jesse Coleman is a researcher with the Greenpeace Investigations team. His focus is on front groups, fracking, and the oil and gas industry. Jesse's work has been featured in The Guardian, The New York Times, The Colbert Report, Al-Jazeera, MSNBC, and NPR.

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