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."
As we spoke, a helicopter was flying slow circles over the cove. It was probably owned by ExxonMobil or someone working for the company, since on April 1, the Federal Aviation Administration had issued a NOTAM, or Notice to Airmen, which placed a five-nautical-mile flight restriction around the Mayflower site. All aircraft flying below 1,000 feet, the NOTAM said, were prohibited from entering the area unless given permission by Tom Suhrhoff, an aviation advisor with ExxonMobil. The ban came after KARK-TV sent a helicopter to capture aerial footage of the spill. Many critics of the response immediately seized on the NOTAM as an ExxonMobil effort to create a "media blackout" of the site, but the company has denied that anything other than air safety over the spill was the goal. The FAA ban was lifted April 5.
Sentney said his sinuses have been acting up and he's had a sore throat since the spill. As a homeowner, he wonders how the spill will affect the property values on homes along Dam Road. An avid fisherman, he wonders if it will be OK to eat the fish from Lake Conway in coming years. "It's a big question," he said. "I fish quite a bit out there and we eat a lot of fish. So, is it going to be safe? ... Personally, I think Exxon is not going to tell us the truth. They've got more money than we've got."
Sentney's fears about the future quality of the lake are shared by biologist Dr. Ben Cash, a herpetology specialist at the University of Central Arkansas who has taken on the job of cleaning snakes that have been rescued from the marsh that feeds the cove. (Wildlife Response Services, hired by Exxon to clean the dozens of mallards, teal, coot, beavers, muskrats, raccoons, turtles, nutria, grebes, squirrels and ducks too coated to identify in a facility in Sherwood, draws the line at snakes; it's delivered cottonmouths, water and mud snakes to Game and Fish to take to Cash.) "We know from other events like this that there is wildlife that moves back into the degraded habitat," picking up contaminants and spreading them, Cash said. Also, he said, "there may not be black crude" in Lake Conway, but the naphthalene in the crude will leach into the cove's water, which can't be fully blocked from the lake.
Today, the focus is on clean-up. "What will be important," Cash said, is what kind of shape the area is in "two years from now."
Ryan Senia has lived on North Starlite, a few houses away from where the breach occurred, since 2009. He said his house was actually listed for sale on the day of the pipeline rupture, but he's since taken down the listing.
Senia said he was at work in Little Rock when he got a text message about the spill from a friend and rushed to Mayflower to find his neighborhood already blocked off. He was able to get in to his house from 10 a.m. to noon March 30, the day after the spill. Oil had run up his driveway and seeped into the edge of his lawn.
Like the press and public, Senia was warned away by local authorities acting under the instructions of Exxon. "When I came out, there was a police officer there and he said, 'If you don't have everything you need right now, if you leave, you can't come back.' " He said he tried to go back to his house with a journalist in tow on April 1, but was turned away by sheriff's deputies. "It's easier to get onto a military base than it is to get into that neighborhood right now," he said.
Senia, who claims the neighborhood's proximity to the oil pipeline was not disclosed to him when he bought his house, said he thinks no one will want to buy a home in the Northwoods subdivision for a very long time. He estimated that half the neighbors he's talked to said they want to move out.
"Even if not a single drop of oil got on my property, because my address is on that street, I just think no one is going to buy that house now," he said. "Even if I'm not personally scared of contamination, a buyer might be unless there is someone to document the cleanup process, and know that everything was removed."
Since the spill, Senia's been educating himself about pipeline safety. He said he hopes other residents will talk to reporters who are trying to cover the spill.
Attorney General Dustin McDaniel toured the Northwoods subdivision on April 3, and called the scene "very disturbing."
"The people in the surrounding communities are very concerned about what this will do to their health and property values," McDaniel said. "I still remain with more questions than answers. I have yet to be told what the opinion of the company is with regard to the cause of the rupture to begin with. I've yet to be told when their last inspection was. I've yet to be told when they first identified that section of pipeline as having some integrity questions."
McDaniel, like many others who have visited the site, said he came away with a headache that lingered into the next day, which he credited to the fumes there. He said his thanks and sympathies go out to both the homeowners who have been displaced, and to the cleanup workers.
McDaniel had told members of the media that they could "tag along" as he took his tour of the neighborhood. Ninety seconds into the tour, however, Faulkner County sheriff's deputies appeared and told reporters they would have to leave. One of the reporters who was there, KUAR's Michael Hibblen, said that reporters were threatened with arrest if they didn't comply. Hibblen has audio of at least part of the encounter with deputies.
In the audio segment, a voice Hibblen identified as that of Faulkner County Judge Allen Dodson directs media members to stand near a yellow pole. Thirty seconds later, however, another voice says: "You all have to go. Sorry. Exxon media, uh, Mobil has changed their minds. You have to leave."
"The Faulkner County deputies started telling us 'ExxonMobil doesn't want you here and you have to leave.' " Hibblen said. He said the deputies became "more agitated" after reporters began asking to speak to someone in charge, and the deputies then told them they had "ten seconds to leave" or they would be arrested. Hibblen said he'd already turned his tape recorder off by the time reporters were threatened with arrest.
"It did raise the question of who is running the show," Hibblen said.
Hibblen returned to the neighborhood for a media tour held by ExxonMobil on Sunday, April 7 (the Arkansas Times didn't receive a notice of the tour), but said it was "disturbing" that the press wasn't given a tour of the spill site for nine days.
McDaniel said that during his tour on April 3, he and their staff were there "doing our jobs," so he didn't get involved when the press was removed from the site. "I was not told why the press was turned away," McDaniel said. "We were asked by the press if they could tag along with us, but we told the press that they were on their own for credentials, and whatever they go to do on a normal day, they should be able to do."
McDaniel has issued a subpoena to ExxonMobil, requiring them to preserve and produce documents related to the Mayflower spill and the subsequent response. Exxon's deadline to produce documents was Wednesday. McDaniel, who said private and public litigation over the Mayflower spill is "inevitable," said he believed the company would comply and meet the deadline.
"I'd like to think that we're not going to start out litigating with a motion to compel compliance with a subpoena," he said.
A community meeting on Sunday, April 7, at the Faulkner County Library sponsored by the Sierra Club was well attended, with almost a hundred people there to share their concerns and ideas on how to make a grass-roots stand going forward. There weren't many good things said about ExxonMobil or their response in Mayflower.
One of those in attendance was Tony Dawson, who was there with his wife, Charity, and their son, Camden. A resident of the Dawson Cove subdivision, which lies across I-40 from the spill site, Dawson said he and his daughter have had sore throats since the spill.
Dawson's father, Delbert, is a homebuilder, and built most of the houses in Dawson Cove. Tony Dawson said he built his family's "dream home" there with the help of his father, choosing the site because of the animals that come through the area.
"The wildlife comes right there to drink that water," he said. "Now they're not going to be there. That's what we bought that for. We have deer coming down there, we've got turkey, beaver, raccoons. Everything comes down through there. Now it's going to be gone."
Dawson said he came to the community meeting because he's worried about what the spill will do to the lake, the local environment and property values in the area. He said he lost his trust in ExxonMobil early in the process, following a meeting between residents and response officials the night after the spill.
"Let me put it this way," Dawson said. "At the community meeting they had that Saturday, they guaranteed us that it wasn't in the cove — guaranteed us. Sat right there, a panel of four ... Guaranteed it wasn't in the cove, and they'd stopped it before it got to the cove. When we got back to the house, my neighbor went out into the woods, and there was oil out there. He said it was 250 feet behind his house. That Sunday, me and my wife got dressed in our boots and we went out there and got pictures of it."
Dawson said that it doesn't seem feasible to him that the oil can be contained in the cove area and kept out of the lake. He said that the last time it rained, he saw workers pumping water over Highway 89 into Lake Conway to keep the cove from overflowing. Having come to live in the area because of the natural beauty, he believes the next phase in the woods behind his house will have to involve clearing the trees so ExxonMobil workers can excavate oil-soaked dirt. He fears that process has already started nearby.
"They've already cleared a space on Interstate Drive that's 200 feet wide," he said. "It's a mess."
One of those trying to get the word out about Mayflower is Eric Moll with tarsandsblockade.org, which Moll said is a "sustained, direct-action campaign against the Keystone XL pipeline."
Proposed by oil company TransCanada, the 36-inch Keystone XL pipeline would run more than 2,000 miles from Alberta, Canada, to refineries near the Texas/Louisiana border, pushing 800,000 barrels per day of heavy diluted bitumen from Canada's "tar sands" region to the Gulf of Mexico. The project has become an environmental and political football, with critics of Keystone XL saying that construction will disrupt sensitive areas, increase the possibility of a catastrophic spill, as well as boost the supply of tar sands oil, which the National Wildlife Federation calls "one of the most polluting and carbon-intensive fuels in the world."
We met Moll on Friday of last week at the spillway on Bell Slough, a state Game and Fish property less than a mile south of the spill site. Nearby, a flock of buzzards ignored us, feasting on something unrecognizable. Moll and three friends had driven over from East Texas a few days before. Since then they had been canvassing the area, knocking on doors, talking to residents about their health issues, and shooting photos and video to upload to the web. The day after we talked to him, Moll and several activists slipped into the cove area near I-40 and shot photos and video of a lake of gooey black goop, a flat bottom boat floating on top of it, that stretched away into the marsh scrub. One person who was there dipped his hand in, and it came out completely black with oil.
"A lot of the people who are right near the spill, even closer than some of those who were evacuated, didn't even get told about it and they are very sick," Moll claimed. "Some of them haven't even been able to talk to us because they can't come outside. We're going around today talking to people, going door-to-door."
Though ExxonMobil says that what spilled in Mayflower is conventional "heavy oil" (see sidebar), Moll contends it's the same kind of bitumen-heavy material that will flow through the Keystone XL pipeline. He said Mayflower should be a wake-up call for those who are on the fence or have never heard about Keystone XL.
"This stuff is not crude oil," he said. "It's a lot more dangerous than crude oil. It's harder to clean up. Crude oil floats so you can scrape it off the top of water or get it with a boom. Dilbit — diluted bitumen, or tar sands — sinks, so it can never really be cleaned up. We're seeing from the Kalamazoo River spill of 2010 that it still isn't cleaned up. People are still sick. People are still getting sick."
Annie Dill, a college student from Little Rock (disclosure: Dill is a student in the author's Fiction Writing class at UALR), was there when the photos of the marsh standing full of oil were taken last Saturday. She said the group had been given permission to walk into the area by the person who owned the property, but the property owner had warned them beforehand that having permission hadn't kept others from being run off by ExxonMobil workers. Dill called the sight of the wetland full of oil "horrifying,"
"We were like: 'Oh my God. This is supposed to be marshland,' " she said. "It smelled so bad." Earlier on Saturday, Dill and others found a mallard near Dam Road, its feathers and head matted with crude. Dill said when they called the ExxonMobil hotline to request someone pick up the duck so it could be cleaned, they were told it would be 24 hours before someone could respond. Dill said that after they called Arkansas Game and Fish and the HAWK wildlife rescue group in Russellville, a wildlife specialist with ExxonMobil eventually did come and pick up the duck, placing it in a plastic bin in a car trunk before driving away.
To read more about Wabasca heavy crude, click here.
To read more about ExxonMobil's Pegasus Pipeline, click here.