Rep. Ed Markey (D-Mass.) sent a letter to ExxonMobil Tuesday seeking clarification about the "troubling and apparently conflicting information" given by the company regarding its March 29 pipeline rupture that dumped at least 210,000 gallons of Canadian oil in an Arkansas neighborhood.
A key piece of data related to the biggest tar sands oil spill in U.S. history has disappeared from the Environmental Protection Agency's website, adding to confusion about the size of the spill and possibly reducing the fine that the company responsible for the accident would be required to pay.
The July 2010 accident on an Enbridge Inc. pipeline dumped thousands of barrels of Canadian dilbit into the Kalamazoo River and surrounding wetlands. But almost three years and two federal investigations later, one of the most important questions about the spill remains unanswered: Exactly how much oil spilled from the pipeline?
The same question is being asked about a more recent dilbit spill—a March 29 accident on ExxonMobil's Pegasus pipeline in Mayflower, Ark. Estimates for that spill, which is still being cleaned up, have risen from 80,000 gallons to more than 200,000 gallons.
Determining the size of an oil spill is important, because every barrel of oil that reaches a navigable waterway triggers a statutory fine of $1,100 per barrel under the Clean Water Act. The fine rises to $4,300 per barrel if a company is proven to have acted with gross negligence.
Since launching an investigation into the Mayflower, Ark. oil spill on April 2, state Attorney General Dustin McDaniel has pushed hard to resolve unanswered questions about the pipeline accident.
McDaniel, a Democrat in his second term as attorney general, caused a stir on April 3 when he insisted on touring the site of the spill with his staff instead of in a bus tour organized by ExxonMobil, the company responsible for the 210,000-gallon pipeline rupture. He drew attention again when he was among the first public officials to acknowledge that some of the oil had reached Lake Conway, a popular recreational area. And instead of relying solely on the U.S. Department of Transportation to investigate the spill, he issued a subpoena that forced ExxonMobil to provide his office with documents about the pipeline and its operational history.
The rupture in the ExxonMobil pipeline that sent a river of oil through a suburban neighborhood in Mayflower, Ark. is now known to be 22 feet long and 2 inches wide. That's almost four times longer than the six-foot pipeline tear that sent more than one million gallons of Canadian dilbit into Michigan's Kalamazoo River in 2010, the worst accident of its kind in U.S. history.
The size and speed of the release through a long opening, thin as a mail slot, shines a spotlight on just how quickly oil pipeline accidents can turn into catastrophes. Between 200,000 and 420,000 gallons of heavy oil spewed out of the 65-year-old pipeline without warning on March 29, Good Friday afternoon, forcing the evacuation of 22 suburban homes.
Few Americans realize how much pressure is needed to operate a pipeline like the Pegasus, which moves more than 90,000 barrels a day of crude across four states, from Illinois to Texas. That's almost four million gallons of heavy oil being pushed over an 850-mile distance in a single day.
When a rupture occurs, so much force is released that large amounts of oil can pour through the breach in minutes.
"People just don't gather how high these things can go," said Richard Kuprewicz, president of the pipeline consulting firm Accufacts Inc. "For the average person, they're just exotic pressures." But if pipeline operators drop their guard, he said, pipelines "can be highly destructive."
The utility that supplies water to most of central Arkansas has been concerned for years about an oil pipeline that runs through the Lake Maumelle watershed. Now, spurred by a March 29 rupture on the line, it wants ExxonMobil to move the line out of its management area.
"It's not a new issue to us," said John Tynan, watershed protection manager for Central Arkansas Water. "We've been working to mitigate the [pipeline's] risks, recognizing that the only way to eliminate the risks is to move the pipeline out of the watershed ... It's one of those things that's been ever-present in terms of options."
As the cleanup in Arkansas continues, residents of Nebraska are watching from afar and worrying about the proposed Keystone XL pipeline, which would carry Canadian crude across the Ogallala aquifer that supplies most of their irrigation and drinking water.
On Sunday, the anti-Keystone group Bold Nebraska launched an online petition asking federal officials to deny the Keystone permit. The Obama administration is expected to approve or reject the pipeline this summer.
"As Arkansas officials plan to ask ExxonMobil to move the Pegasus Pipeline away from the Lake Maumelle Watershed in the wake off a tar sands spill, Nebraskans are circulating a similar petition…to stop the proposed Keystone XL pipeline that still crosses the Ogallala Aquifer—one of the country's largest sources of freshwater," they wrote.
MAYFLOWER, Ark.—Nearly a week after an oil pipeline ruptured in Mayflower, Ark., residents of this community of 2,200 are still overwhelmed by the disaster that has upended their lives.
"All of us are in shock," said David Fox, the pastor of First Baptist Church. "Manmade disasters are so rare in our state ... you don't think this kind of thing can happen to you."
The oil spill, which occurred on Good Friday, cast a pall over the church service Fox held that day, he said. On Easter Sunday, an Exxon contractor showed up at the church to monitor indoor and outdoor air quality.
The underground pipeline, owned by ExxonMobil, sent at least 147,000 gallons of heavy Canadian crude oil through the streets of one of the town's more affluent neighborhoods, forcing the evacuation of 22 homes. A smell that residents describe as "acrid" or "like burning tires" still lingers in the North Woods subdivision.
MAYFLOWER, Ark.—A warehouse next to highway I-40 here at the edge of Mayflower, Ark., houses the command center for the ongoing cleanup of thousands of barrels of spilled Canadian heavy oil, but it is inaccessible to media.
Tightly controlled by ExxonMobil, which was responsible for the spill, access to even the parking lot is not permitted. A security guard now stops anyone without a red lanyard and ID badge from passing into the gated compound.
Thousands of barrels of oil from Alberta's tar sands region—similar to the crude that would flow through the controversial Keystone XL project—spilled into a suburban Arkansas neighborhood on Friday. A 70-year-old pipeline owned by Exxon that runs from Patoka, Ill. to Nederland, Texas ruptured and forced the evacuation of nearly two dozen homes.
The town of 2,000 people is now suddenly the focus of national attention in the divisive debate over whether President Obama should approve the Keystone XL, a $5 billion pipeline to ship Alberta's heavy crude to U.S. refineries along the Texas coast.
A petition filed with federal agencies last week by a coalition led by the National Wildlife Federation is demanding a moratorium on pending tar sands pipelines—including the Keystone XL—until regulators establish new rules to ensure their safety.
As if to illustrate the dangers outlined in the petition, Exxon's Pegasus pipeline that carries Canadian diluted bitumen, or dilbit, on Friday spilled in central Arkansas, releasing an estimated 84,000 gallons of the crude within about 45 minutes before the release was stopped, according to local sources.
Filed on behalf of 29 environmental and community groups and 36 individuals, the petition includes a list of nine policy recommendations for the safe transport of dilbit, a type of crude oil produced from Canada's oil sands region.
"Simply put, diluted bitumen and conventional crude oil are not the same substance," the petitioners wrote. "There is increasing evidence that the transport of diluted bitumen is putting America's public safety at risk. Current regulations fail to protect the public against those risks. Instead, regulations ... treat diluted bitumen and conventional crude the same."
The rules proposed by the petitioners cover pipeline safety, leak prevention and oil spill response, issues InsideClimate News has been covering closely in the wake of the million-gallon dilbit spill in Michigan's Kalamazoo River that occurred in July 2010.
A pipeline that ruptured and leaked at least 80,000 gallons of oil into central Arkansas on Friday was transporting a heavy form of crude from the Canadian tar sands region, ExxonMobil told InsideClimate News.
Local police said the line gushed oil for 45 minutes before being stopped, according to media reports.
Crude oil ran through a subdivision of Mayflower, Ark., about 20 miles north of Little Rock. Twenty-two homes were evacuated, but no one was hospitalized, Exxon spokesman Charlie Engelmann said on Saturday.
In an interview with InsideClimate News, Faulkner County Judge Allen Dodson said emergency crews prevented the oil from entering waterways. The judge issued an emergency declaration following the spill and is involved in coordinating clean-up efforts among federal, state and local agencies and Exxon.
If all goes well, the next oil removal operation on Michigan's Kalamazoo River will mark the beginning of the end for the cleanup of the largest oil pipeline spill in U.S. history
The spill, which occurred in July 2010, already has cost pipeline operator Enbridge Inc. more than $820 million in cleanup expenses. That figure could top $1 billion by the time the latest operation is carried out.
The goal of the new effort is to dredge three areas of the river where the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency says oil is still accumulating. When the EPA first proposed the idea in October, Enbridge asked the agency to delay its decision until it conducted more scientific studies. But Enbridge agreed to comply after the EPA issued an order on March 14.
The EPA fears that if the oil isn't removed, it could continue to spread and contaminate parts of the river that are currently clean.
Surveys "show that submerged oil can now be detected throughout the 2 mile long, 700 acre expanse of [Morrow] lake," the EPA said in a letter that accompanied the order. "By contrast, only 189 acres showed submerged oil impact in Fall 2011. In Spring 2012, the area of impact had progressed to 325 acres."