- Brian Chilson
The world knows Mayflower's Northwoods subdivision as the sleepy, comfortable neighborhood that ExxonMobil's Pegasus pipeline blighted in a March 29 spill that blacked yards and streets with an estimated 210,000 gallons of heavy crude. The occupants of 22 homes were forcibly evacuated, while families in many of the other 40 homes in the subdivision fled the toxic fumes that erupted from a bus-length gash in the pipe. News crews, workers and gawkers flooded the streets right behind the oil.
But life goes on, even if many residents have moved out or are aiming to. Once again, it's a quiet neighborhood. It's still just a 20-minute commute from the downtowns of Little Rock and Conway. Lake Conway and the Arkansas River are still right around the corner, when you want to wet a line. Anyone wanting to move in would certainly have her pick of homes these days.
Immediately after the spill, Exxon offered to buy the 22 homes that families were required to leave, at pre-spill prices. According to county records and the company, Exxon has closed on five Northwoods homes. At last count, another dozen owners in the subdivision had put their homes on the market. In all, counting the homes Exxon has offered to buy, about half the subdivision is for sale.
After everything the neighborhood has been through, it may yet be a decent place to park your truck, cut your grass and let kids bike in the streets — all normal stuff, all still happening in Northwoods. But though the benzene fumes have dissipated, there's a cloud hanging over the place.
"We're in an ambiguous situation that's never happened before," said Glen Rega, a Crye-Leike real estate agent in Conway who's representing the sellers of two Northwoods homes. "I'm sure once the first buyer goes in there and doesn't have any issues, then more will see the value that's there. We're putting our best foot forward. I think it's going to rise above itself."
But for now, nobody but Exxon is buying in Northwoods. In fact, no one's buying much of anything anywhere in Mayflower (though that's not unusual for a small town where people tend not to move, according to the Faulkner County assessor's office). In the six months since the Good Friday spill, 10 homes have sold in the town of 2,200 people, and half of those were the homes Exxon bought, each for between $151,000 and $177,000.
- Brian Chilson
- A PILE OF RUBBLE: That's all the remained of one of the Northwoods' homes Exxon demolished on Oct. 7.
There are still reasons to recommend Northwoods, and Mayflower. The homes are pleasant — brick facades, big garages, high ceilings, fenced-in backyards, built in the past 10 years — and tend to be more house than you could get for the same price in a suburb closer to Little Rock, real estate agents and home owners said.
Despite Exxon's best efforts to keep the subdivision's housing market from crashing, the uncertainty brought on by the spill is likely to linger for years in Northwoods.
"Exxon's taking care of everybody, but nobody knows about the future," said Kim Burks, a Crye-Leike agent representing another Northwoods seller. "When Exxon does buy people's homes back, we don't know if they're going to sit on them for a while or slowly put them back on the market.
"Out of all places to break, why did it have to happen in that beautiful neighborhood? It had beautiful resale value before, one of the only areas in Mayflower with nice, new homes like that."
Faulkner County hasn't reduced its assessed value of Northwoods properties. "It's a tough one because there's not a whole lot for us to look at where it's happened before," Angela Hill, the Faulkner County assessor, said. "There are lots of spills out there, but not in residential neighborhoods." Without a comparable situation elsewhere in the country, Hill said, the county's waiting for private buyers to determine the homes' market value.
At least one concrete indicator suggests the homes have not, in fact, held their former value. Citing the uncertainty created by oil contamination and lawsuits against Exxon, lenders are quietly reluctant to issue loans for Northwoods properties. Homes with that much baggage don't appeal to investors who buy up mortgages. If you want to buy here, bring cash.
"It would be hard to sell that loan on the secondary market," said Doris Watkins, a loan originator at First Security Bank in Conway. "Because in the appraisal it'll probably be noted, what happened. Plus it made national news. If I had [a house] there, I'd probably take the Exxon deal and get out."
The Exxon deal — the "Property Purchase and Price Protection Program," in the company's alliterative appellation — breaks down like this: Exxon has offered to buy any home in Northwoods at its appraised value as if the spill hadn't occurred. If a home was among those that faced mandatory evacuation, then Exxon will buy it directly. If a home was outside that zone, the owner first must try to sell the home on the open market. If after 120 days it hasn't sold, Exxon will buy it at a pre-spill price. If an owner gets an offer lower than the appraised price, Exxon will close the gap.
For anyone wanting to remain in the neighborhood, Exxon will provide "a one-time payment for potential diminished property value," according to the documents Exxon sent to residents in May. The program also provides for closing costs and moving allowances, aid to tenants, and help with marketing homes. The offer stands until May 2016 and will extend to anyone who buys into the neighborhood, as well, a safeguard against the market in the subdivision completely crashing.
As for what Exxon's going to do with the homes it buys? "We are still evaluating our options," spokesman Aaron Stryk wrote in an email. "That said, ExxonMobil will maintain the properties it purchases in a manner that will be considerate of the value of the neighboring properties and the rest of the subdivision."
The company specifies that participating in the program doesn't preclude a resident from suing. At present at least 19 former and current residents and evacuees of the subdivision, from six Northwoods homes, have filed a class-action suit against Exxon (Finton et al v. ExxonMobil Pipeline Co.).
The lawsuits could also disrupt the title process for any potential buyers, said Tom Poe, who manages Lender's Title in Conway. "If there's lawsuits pending," Poe said, "of course clear title could not be delivered." In his 26 years selling real estate in Faulkner County before he began at Lender's, Poe never saw anything disrupt the county's property like the Pegasus break. One buyer he served at the title company closed on a home in Northwoods the very afternoon of the spill. "Within an hour of them buying the house," he said, "they were locked out."
At the time a reporter reached Jerry Hill, a broker with ERA Henley Real Estate in Conway, the home she was trying to sell in Northwoods had been on the market for nearly three weeks, and she'd received no calls.
"It's going to be really, really difficult to sell those houses because the underwriters won't underwrite those houses," Hill said. "Selling them is almost impossible at this point in time. ... I'm hopeful that my seller will get out of this without being hurt. We'll just wait and see."
An ongoing feature of Exxon's community bulletins about the progress of Northwoods has been to emphasize how many of the 22 homes have been officially labeled safe for return, or, in the parlance, "cleared for re-entry" by Unified Command — which includes Exxon, the Arkansas Department of Health, the Environmental Protection Agency, Faulkner County and the Arkansas Department of Environmental Quality. All but three homes have been cleared.
Of the three homes Unified Command hasn't cleared for reentry, Exxon has bought two and torn them down. "We determined demolition was an efficient way to remove and excavate any oil that was beneath the foundations," Stryk said. "Once that work is done, the focus is to excavate any contaminated soil and replace it with fresh dirt. For the near term, it will be just green space." He added that the company is "discussing next steps" with the owner of the third uninhabitable house, which sits beside the rupture site.
Allen Dodson, the Faulkner County judge who heads Unified Command, said he expected five of the 22 mandatorily evacuated homes to be occupied by the end of last week. "In general, we've had a lot of clean-up happening," he said. "It can't get here soon enough."
But just because Unified Command cleared a home didn't mean residents wanted to move back. During the summer Exxon has wavered on how soon it expects families to return to those homes that have been declared safe.
Attorney General Dustin McDaniel has supported the right of families not to return. He quipped on "The Rachel Maddow Show" in late August that "there is no safe level of benzene to have in my living room."
While that may be true in the McDaniel household, the Environmental Protection Agency has established permissible levels of benzene and other aromatic hydrocarbons that filled the homes in and around Northwoods when the pipeline broke. The Arkansas Department of Environmental Quality and the Center for Toxicology & Environmental Health, a North Little Rock environmental testing firm, are monitoring the air and gave the all-clear when those levels dropped below that threshold.
The Arkansas Department of Health is so satisfied with the low levels of toxins that its concern is shifting somewhat to the long-term psychological effects of the evacuation itself. At a recent public presentation at the department, Dr. William Mason, the physician who represented the Department of Health within Unified Command, spoke of his worry that people who lived in Northwoods at the time of the spill could develop post-traumatic stress disorder.
"When these people were evacuated, it was done rapidly," Mason said. "They had to leave everything behind, figure out where their children were going to go to school: 'Am I safe? Can I go back and get my belongings?' I think there will be some of that element that will occur."
Half a year after the initial spill, all that visibly remains for crews in Northwoods to do is dig up and swap out oil-tainted dirt from the backyards around the rupture site. The persistence of the cleanup and the uncertainty around lingering oil were enough to convince Ryan Senia, a mandatorily evacuated resident who isn't suing Exxon, that he should sell to the oil company.
"That's why a lot of us are cashing out," he said a few days after closing the sale on Aug. 15. "What if it's six more months of this? I don't really want to live by this." He was chagrined at how slowly the process moved — having to make five mortgage payments since the spill made him feel as if he "threw $6,500 into a black hole."
County records show that Mobil Pipe Line Co. paid him $165,000 for his 1,818-square-foot house, with its 502-square-foot garage, on the quarter-acre lot.
It pained Senia to part with the house. He reminisced about the parties he could throw, as a single guy, with a yard and a big garage and blocks of free parking outside. He eyed the little garden in front of his porch and noted, "The rose bush needs to be trimmed back." Strands of grass had begun encroaching on his Russian sage, his orange and lemon thyme, his lilies and his celosia. Of those, only the yellow roses were blooming with much enthusiasm.
Two things, specifically, prompted him to sell. The first was the persistent presence of oil beneath the foundations of the homes on his block, the north side of North Starlite Road that caught the brunt of the oil's flow. The second was his doubt that buyers other than Exxon would ever feel compelled to pay sticker price for a home in Mayflower, of all places, that had been through such havoc.
"If there's not a severe discount on any of these properties, why buy it?" he said. "It's like selling a salvaged car — nobody wants to buy it. You're going to be holding onto that thing forever, so it's a serious commitment to buy this house.
"People that live on the pipeline right over there? Can they sell their house? Only time's going to tell. In my mind, a lot of people are going to say, 'There's no way in hell I'd touch that.' But I could be wrong."
As he was talking beside the house he had just signed away to the world's most profitable corporation, Senia finished munching on a peach. He pitched the pit toward the back yard and called out, "Peach tree."
His throw fell short. The pit rattled squarely in the gutter and stuck. Senia was let down. "I was kind of hoping there'd be a peach tree there in a couple of years," he said.
This story is part of a joint investigative project by the Arkansas Times and InsideClimate News. Funding for this project comes from individuals who donated to an ioby.org crowd-funding campaign that raised nearly $27,000 and from the Fund for Investigative Journalism.