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Exxon Oil Spill Leaves Arkansas Neighborhood In Shock

Nearly a week after a burst pipeline spilled tar sands crude through their streets, residents of this tiny community are without answers and overwhelmed.

Apr 4, 2013
Exxon dilbit spill in Mayflower, Ark.

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.On Wednesday night, Fox's church hosted a dinner for the evacuated families. Church members brought homemade soups, chili, cornbread and dessert. Throughout the evening, families trickled in and out, eating the food and sharing stories about their experiences after the spill.

Several residents told InsideClimate News they were pleased with the way Exxon is footing the bill for their food, lodging and other material needs. But they also said they have many unanswered questions about the health impacts of the oil and how long it would be before their lives could return to normal.

Jennifer Tistle, a mother of three who works in retail in Little Rock, said that until the spill she hadn't even known that an oil pipeline passed through her neighborhood. She learned about the accident on Friday afternoon, when her husband got a text message from a neighbor.

The couple rushed home from work. By the time they arrived, however, police had cordoned off their street. The family of five spent the night in a hotel room. The next morning, Mayflower's police chief escorted them to their home so they could pack some belongings.

Tistle said they just ran around grabbing things. "I told the kids, I don't know if your clothes will match, but you'll have stuff to wear."

The oil ran through the Tistles' side yard and part of their backyard. "We've never been in a situation like this," she said. "We don't even know what questions to ask. "

Tistle said it's hard to think ahead about the future, about whether they'll move back into their house or try to sell it. She wants to learn more about the composition of the oil, its health effects and how the spill will impact property values.

"It's just overwhelming," she said. "My brain is overloaded."

Go to Our News Center for Full & Expert Coverage of the Exxon Oil Spill in Arkansas

The ExxonMobil pipeline was carrying Wabasca Heavy crude, a type of dilbit made from bitumen mined in Canada’s oil sands region. Because bitumen is too thick to flow through pipelines, it is diluted with natural gas liquids and turned into dilbit, or diluted bitumen.

In 2010 a pipeline owned by Enbridge Inc. dumped more than a million gallons of dilbit into Michigan’s Kalamazoo River, and that spill is still being cleaned up today.  Dilbit would also be carried on the Keystone XL pipeline, which will run from Alberta, Canada to the U.S. Gulf Coast if the Obama administration approves the project.

Shelia Harrell, the administrative assistant and treasurer for First Baptist Church, lives in the North Woods subdivision but not in the area that was evacuated. Like Tistle, she had not known there was an oil pipeline in the neighborhood.

Harrell was babysitting her 17-month old grandson Friday afternoon when the pipeline ruptured. She said no officials knocked on her door to tell her that her neighbors were being evacuated, or to explain what was in the oil to create the air pollution warnings.

By the time Harrell's daughter arrived to pick up her son, the smell of the oil had permeated her daughter's car.

Harrell said the fumes were particularly bad on Friday and Saturday night, when it was cloudy. Since then, she said the fumes seem to come and go, but are getting weaker—though she fears that's just a sign that she has become habituated to the smell.

Fox, the pastor, lives in another neighborhood about 2,000 feet from a marsh polluted by the oil. The smell at his house was so strong on Friday afternoon that it made him sick to his stomach.

The oil "just stinks," said Jennifer Whittington, a mother of two who works part time at a church in the nearby city of Maumelle. On Friday, Whittington was backing out of her driveway to pick up her child from school when she saw oil in the street. By 4:40 p.m., about two hours after a neighbor called 911 to report the spill, Whittington, her husband and two daughters all had headaches, so they left for a hotel.

The children, aged 6 and 4, were excited at first about the adventure, she said. But Wednesday morning they woke up crying. Even the hotel swimming pool couldn't distract them.

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