Looking back on the Arkansas oil spill

by Jason Schwartz

March 28, 2014

Oil seeps into a marshy waterway near Interstate 40 after Exxon's Pegasus pipeline was shut down March 29, 2013, after a leak was discovered in a subdivision near the town of Mayflower, Arkansas, forcing the evacuation of 22 homes.

© Karen McCall / Greenpeace

Saturday marks the anniversary of a major American oil spill. Last year on March 29, an underground pipeline operated by ExxonMobil burst, pouring at least 200,000 gallons of tar sands oil across a residential landscape in the town of Mayflower, Arkansas.

(If you feel like you were just readingabout the anniversary of another major spill by Exxon, don’t worry, you’re not crazy. March 24 was the 25th anniversary of the Exxon Valdez spill.)

Workers surround houses in Mayflower, Arkansas, in an attempt to clean up an oil spill from Exxon's Pegasus pipeline. A leak was discovered in the subdivision forcing the evacuation of 22 homes.

Workers surround houses in Mayflower, Arkansas, in an attempt to clean up an oil spill from Exxon’s Pegasus pipeline. A leak was discovered in the subdivision forcing the evacuation of 22 homes.

What happened?

ExxonMobil’s Pegasus pipeline, which was carrying oil from Canada’s Athabasca Tar Sands from Illinois to Texas’s Gulf Coast, blew, dumping more than 12,000 barrels directly onto a residential neighborhood.


That oil wasn’t any ordinary light “sweet crude oil.” It was a substance known as diluted bitumen, or dilbit. Essentially, to transport the peanut butter-textured oil sands bitumen through pipelines, it has to be diluted with water and other chemicals.The stuff is nasty, containing high levels of sulfur and carcinogens like benzene.

Exxon Pipeline Oil Spill in Arkansas

Workers remove protective clothing.

The spill site was evacuated. But oil flowed through sewers and soiled nearby Lake Conway. You could tell from ExxonMobil’s response that the area was reduced to an utter mess.

The company, which by the way is the most profitable company in the world, even got the FAA to institute a no-fly zone above the the spill site, presumably so nobody could get aerial photos.

In fact, ExxonMobil did everything it could to keep the extent of the spill out of the news. It downplayed the impact of the spill (as oil companies always seem to do). It stifled reporting by keeping reporters from the site. And according to documents obtained by Greenpeace, it knowingly put out false press releases about the extent of Lake Conway’s contamination and was eventually forced to retract its claims.

Oil booms are visible in the water alongside Interstate 40 near Mayflower, Arkansas.

Oil booms are visible in the water alongside Interstate 40 near Mayflower, Arkansas.

Why are we dwelling on bygone spills?

There are a lot of reasons to mark the spill. First of all, the people and ecosystems that were affected are still reeling from it, experiencing firsthand that oil spills never really “go away.” They don’t get “cleaned up.” And the landscape and communities destroyed never really recover. ExxonMobil and other officials say the area is safe again, but locals still complain of nausea, dizziness, and headaches.

Many residents of Northwood, the neighborhood that was most acutely affected by the spill, have left for good. Some point to fears and lingering health problems, others site persistent damage to their property from the toxic and heavy dilbit that infiltrated their homes. And asInside Climate Newsreported in November, nobody seems to be moving in, either. Most of the houses that have been sold so far have been sold to ExxonMobil.

Oil seeps into a marshy waterway.

Oil seeps into a marshy waterway.

It’s also important to mark the Mayflower spill because there are a lot of towns just like Mayflower out there: hosts to oil pipelines quietly corroding under backyards. And as this nation and our neighbors to the north consider doubling down on Alberta’s Tar Sands, pipelines continue to be primary solution to getting it across the landscape. The controversy over the Keystone XL pipeline is only the most high profile of them.

While we debate over here, two enormous pipelines that carry dilbit across much of Canada are on their way to becoming a reality. And that tar sands oil is particularly corrosive. A study by theArkansas Times showed that it most likely played a role in the pipeline’s rupture.

What’s crazy is that we are looking back at Mayflower and ExxonValdez during a week with a bunch of oil spills. One in Galveston Bay spilled 168,000 gallons into sensitive areas on the Texas coast. Another on Lake Michigan was, predictably, underreported by British Petroleum for days. And yet another, in Ohio, blasted 20,000 gallons of oil onto a nature preserve.

The real question here is why are we going through all this expense, suffering all these risks and harms to our homes, our families, and our ecosystems, only to prop up yesterday’s energy source? We remember Mayflower for the people whose lives were changed. And we remember it so that we can keep it from happening to more people in the future.

We cant afford to continue giving new oil projects the green light. Take action and sayNo to KeystoneandNo to Arctic drilling.

Jason Schwartz

By Jason Schwartz

Jason Schwartz is a media officer for Greenpeace USA based in New York City.

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