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."