More from Sam Eifling on my earlier report on ExxonMobil's notice to Mayflower residents receiving housing assistance as victims of the Pegagus pipeline break that the assistance will end Sept. 1:
By now, four months after a pipeline rupture vomited a reeking creek of crude down the block, you’d swear North Starlite Road could be the prettiest row of homes in Mayflower. Certainly they’ve been the most doted-over. On Thursday, workmen were mowing newly laid sod and taking soil tests around some of the 22 homes residents evacuated after the March 29 Pegasus pipeline disaster.
ExxonMobil has begun telling residents they are cleared to move back into their homes. Company reps, in fact, made it clear this week to residents just how confident they are it’s time to come back, telling some homeowners the company won’t pay for temporary housing beyond August 31. This came as a surprise to displaced residents who, lawmakers said, had been told the company would cover their replacement housing for at least six months after the disaster.
“It’s horrible,” said Amber Bartlett, whose home on North Starlite is half a block from the source of the spill. “They want us to go back now. We’re not comfortable with that, because no one really knows if long-term health effects are linked to exposure to this.”
Bartlett, her husband, Ches, and their four kids have been renting a home from a friend since vacating the neighborhood. Because of the perceived health risks, she said, the family intends to sell the home to ExxonMobil and has no desire to move back into the house.
“This is cut and dry. It’s simple,” said state Sen. David Sanders. “You simply apply the old do-right rule in this instance. For some [families] it’s continuing to work with them and negotiate on the sale of the homes. For some, it’s to give them more time.”
Sanders said he noticed a commonality among the affected residents he’d spoken to and thus have gotten the word that support from Exxon is coming to an end: They hadn’t hired lawyers.
U.S. Rep. Tim Griffin, whose district includes Mayflower, sent a letter Thursday to ExxonMobil suggesting the company instead offer temporary housing “to these victims of the spill” until the end of the year, at least. “I am angered and deeply concerned,” the letter reads, “that ExxonMobil would prematurely terminate housing assistance for these residents, forcing them to either move back into their homes or pay the full cost of alternative housing.”
ExxonMobil spokesman Aaron Stryk said the company has worked with the Environmental Protection Agency and the Arkansas Department Health to ensure that air in the homes isn’t poisonous. Of the 22 homes that were officially evacuated after the spill, 17 have been cleared for reentry.
If residents are less than reassured that they won’t get sick, or have other reasons for not wanting to return to their homes yet, Stryk said the company may make provisions. “We realize people have unique circumstances,” he said. “We don’t want to be portrayed as this heartless corporate entity that wants to kick everybody out, so we want to work with these folks.”
ExxonMobil is still proceeding with deals to buy homes from some residents, Stryk said. As yet, no terms have been disclosed.
Attorney General Dustin McDaniel also issued a statement ripping Exxon on the decision.
I have said for months that Exxon’s “Property Purchase and Price Protection Program” was inadequate, and that homeowners have been forced to experience too much company red tape. So, it’s inconceivable that Exxon would now cut off assistance to Mayflower residents forced from their homes because of this spill. To be clear, no families have left their new homes to live in motels because that’s what they wanted to do.
This company made $44.9 billion last year — that’s just over $1,400 per second. This action reflects a greater concern for the bottom line than for the families that have been impacted.
Simply because houses have technically been made available for re-entry does not mean that moms and dads are comfortable with returning their children to what once were their homes.