On March 29, 2013, ExxonMobil's 850-mile Pegasus oil pipeline split open and spilled 210,000 gallons of Canadian dilbit across an Arkansas suburb.
The oil spill was a wake-up call about aging pipelines and specifically about the Pegasus, a 65-year-old line that most people near the spill site didn't know existed. The pipe crisscrosses 13 Arkansas counties and 18 drinking water sources on its way to Texas—including the Maumelle watershed, a water source for 400,000 people in Central Arkansas. The rupture happened just eight pipeline miles from Maumelle.
In Part 2 of "Shattered by Oil"—an ICN co-production with This American Land—Pulitzer Prize-winner Elizabeth McGowan talks with water utility officials, residents and others about the "what-ifs"—and about how they're working to get the pipeline relocated or shut down for good.
On March 29, 2013, an ExxonMobil oil pipeline that runs under a tiny residential neighborhood in Mayflower, Ark. split open and spilled 210,000 gallons of Canadian dilbit across backyards and streets and in waterways.
InsideClimate News spent months reporting the spill on the ground. In Part 1 of "Shattered by Oil"—an ICN co-production with This American Land—Pulitzer Prize winner Elizabeth McGowan returns to Mayflower, Ark., to explore the fate of residents who are living with the effects of the oil disaster and trying to piece together their lives.
LITTLE ROCK, Ark.—Arkansas state legislators leery of lax federal oversight of oil pipelines have attempted to beef up safety standards to try to prevent another disastrous spill in their own backyard.
They're aware, however, that their efforts are largely symbolic.
That's because, in most instances, a state statute cannot infringe on the federal government's constitutional authority to set and enforce rules about petroleum pipelines. But for local lawmakers trying to calm constituent fears after a 65-year-old pipeline burst in central Arkansas, going it alone seemed the only option in an environment where the U.S. Congress and federal regulators seem incapable of strengthening rules that pipeline safety advocates perceive as weak and ineffective.
LITTLE ROCK, Ark.—Central Arkansas Water is fully aware that its push to relocate the compromised Pegasus pipeline out of its watershed will likely become a NIMBY issue.
But that hasn't stopped the utility from continuing its bulldog-like push for ExxonMobil to remove 13.5 miles of mostly buried pipeline from the northern edge of Lake Maumelle. The man-made lake provides 67 million gallons of water per day to 400,000 residential, commercial and industrial customers in and around Little Rock.
"We want zero risk," said John Tynan, the utility's watershed protection manager. "That's why we're asking for the relocation. Our question is, how do we make this a reality?"
LITTLE ROCK, Ark.—Is it too little, too late?
That's the question Mayflower residents are asking now that the state is finally offering them access to free health assessments five months after a ruptured ExxonMobil pipeline emptied 210,000 gallons of heavy crude into their city 25 miles northwest of Little Rock.
Since the March 29 spill, many people have continued to suffer from dizziness, headaches, nausea and vomiting—classic symptoms of short-term exposure to the chemicals found in crude oil.
While 22 homes in the Northwoods subdivision were evacuated on that Good Friday afternoon, people who lived nearby were allowed to remain in their homes. If the smells or symptoms were too overwhelming, they could leave their homes voluntarily, they were told.
"Five months out is a little late, but people are still sick," said Ann Jarrell, who wasn't evacuated and is still suffering from respiratory problems. "I'll continue to scream from the tallest tree that we need help."
MAYFLOWER, Ark.—Homeowners whose lives are still in limbo after thousands of gallons of oil streamed into their neighborhood from a ruptured pipeline on March 29 might never know precisely how much of the sticky black goo oil actually spilled.
The working estimate is that 5,000 barrels—210,000 gallons—of Canadian heavy crude oil poured from a 22-foot break in ExxonMobil's Pegasus pipeline on that Good Friday afternoon.
But officials with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and Exxon say the actual amount can't be figured until the Pegasus is up and running again. That will allow Exxon to do a mathematical calculation while the line is operating at the same flow as it was when it broke open.
However, that scenario could prove problematic.
MAYFLOWER, Ark.—Anything for his treasured fishing hole. That was the mantra cycling through Jimmy Joe Johnson's head on the afternoon of Friday, March 29 as he rushed to keep a filthy stream of crude oil from spilling out of a cove and into the main body of Lake Conway.
Standing at the edge of the lake more than four months later, Johnson had his fingers crossed that his efforts that day weren't for naught. Officials with the Arkansas Department of Environmental Quality (ADEQ) say they feel certain that soon-to-come results from sediment testing will confirm what water tests revealed—that no oil reached the main body of the lake.
But Johnson won't stop fretting until he sees definitive proof that the lake wasn't sullied.
Johnson's lookout on this steamy August day is roughly nine-tenths of a mile from the spot where oil from ExxonMobil's ruptured Pegasus pipeline gushed into a subdivision of neat, brick homes. Instinct and familiarity with the local topography guided Johnson and a crew of locals to this site on that fateful Friday afternoon—a man-made dike about the length of a football field and wide enough to support two lanes of State Highway 89 traffic.
1969: Pipeline 6B installed.
1999: Enbridge begins carrying diluted bitumen from Alberta on Pipeline 6B, part of the company's Lakehead system.
2008: An internal Enbridge inspection identifies 140 corrosion defects on 6B.
2009: Another internal Enbridge inspection identifies 250 more corrosion defects on 6B.
2009: Enbridge tells PHMSA it will reduce pumping pressure along 6B while deciding whether to repair or replace the line.
July 2010: Enbridge in midst of dig-and-repair program on 6B in Marshall area and elsewhere.
July 15, 2010: Enbridge seeks permission from PHMSA to continue operating 6B at reduced pressure for another 2 ½ years.
July 15, 2010: Enbridge official tells a congressional subcommittee the company's response time to a leak can be "almost instantaneous."
About 34 miles of the Kalamazoo River in Southeastern Michigan were opened to the public Thursday, almost two years after the most expensive oil pipeline spill in U.S. history dumped more than 1 million gallons of heavy Canadian crude into an adjoining creek.
Crews have been cleaning the waterway since July 26, 2010, when a ruptured pipeline owned by Enbridge Energy Partners, the U.S. branch of Canada's largest transporter of crude oil, was discovered in wetlands in Marshall, Mich. The Canadian crude oil, known as diluted bitumen, contaminated more than two miles of Talmadge Creek and about 36 miles of the Kalamazoo, forcing people to flee their homes because of the overpowering smells.
The cost of the cleanup has now reached at least $765 million, making it the most expensive oil pipeline spill since the government began keeping records in 1968. Enbridge is responsible for all of the cost, with most of the cost being paid by its insurance company.
With Thursday's opening, all but a short stretch of the river known as the Morrow Lake delta is now available for recreation, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. That delta area, at the western edge of the contaminated section and near the city of Kalamazoo, remains closed to the public.
Although people can once again swim and boat on the Kalamazoo, that doesn't mean the river is oil-free. Cleanup of the remaining oil will continue in the Morrow Lake delta and other low spots along the river bottom. EPA officials in Marshall have told InsideClimate News that removing the rest of the oil could take months or years.
WASHINGTON—Those expecting a consistent climate change message from the White House are having trouble squaring two recent energy initiatives.
President Obama avoided any climate-related language when he stood in Cushing, Okla. on March 22 to encourage construction of the southern leg of the fiercely debated Keystone XL oil pipeline. Then, just five days later—when Obama was attending a nuclear security summit in South Korea—the Environmental Protection Agency modestly rolled out its first-ever carbon pollution standard for future power plants.
How, puzzled critics asked, could the Obama administration endorse a tar sands pipeline project that's been labeled the "fuse to the biggest carbon bomb on the planet" while simultaneously laying the groundwork for kicking coal to the curb as an electricity generator?
The short answer is that he has one eye on the polls and the other on his long-term energy goals.