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 investigation is an enormous undertaking for McDaniel's office, which has little experience with pipeline accidents. The office has hired dozens of experts to review the more than 12,500 pages of documents Exxon turned over, a process that could take many months. McDaniel requested $4 million from Exxon to fund the investigation, but the company turned down that request last week.
In an interview with InsideClimate News on Friday, McDaniel said he hopes his investigation will lead to faster and greater transparency about the cause and consequences of the spill.
InsideClimate News: You've said publicly that you were frustrated with ExxonMobil during your first visit to the spill site. Can you tell us what happened?
Ark. Attorney General Dustin McDaniel: As soon as I saw on the news what was happening on Good Friday [March 29, the day of the spill], I was communicating with my staff, and they were communicating with other state agencies who were involved in the initial response. I contacted the county judge [Allen Dodson]. In Arkansas, a county judge is the county administrator, the top executive of the county—it's not a judicial position. I let it be known we would be coming with our environmental team up to the site, and obviously offered our support in whatever way that we could in the first couple of days.
On the morning of [our visit on April 3], one of the lawyers from my office got a call from a lobbyist for Exxon, one of their government relations guys. He told my staff that what would need to happen was to meet at City Hall, not at the operation center, and that I could get into a 15-passenger van along with the local member of Congress, the county judge, the mayor of the town, and the president of ExxonMobil Pipeline Company, and that I could go on a tour.
So when my staff told me that I said, 'Well that's nice, but I'm not going over there for a tour. I'm going to stay with my investigators and team, and we're going to go where we want to go and view what we want to view, and take pictures of what we want to take pictures of and talk to who we want to talk to. And I certainly can't do that if I'm on a guided tour with a member of Congress and a bunch of Exxon lobbyists. And so tell them, thank you but no thank you.'
That set off a morning flurry of phone calls. They were just dumbfounded that I wasn't going to take the tour, and they wanted me to know that they'd set this tour up, they'd rented this bus, and they had the president of ExxonMobil Pipeline Company, and they just couldn't understand why I wasn't going to get on the bus.
When I walked into the operations center, I just walked up to the kid who was running the check-in, and I told him who I was and that I was there to get my ID badge. The next thing you know there's about three people from Exxon public relations going 'Wait a minute, you're not supposed to be here. You're supposed to be on the tour!'
...Throughout the morning I kept getting phone calls or emails or people showing up to say 'hey, you're missing the tour. We really need you to go on the tour.' So I had to decline the tour about 12 times.
(McDaniel's office said the attorney general and his staff were able to walk through the site and conduct their investigation that day without any problems.)
ICN: How many people are working on the investigation your office is conducting?
McDaniel: I have a very limited environmental division directly in the AG's office. I have two lawyers and an investigator, and they coordinate with the Arkansas Department of Environmental Quality daily. I don't think over the course of a normal year I need any more than that, because we certainly use the rather sizable staff at the ADEQ.
For this case, I'm contracting with outside sources to supplement our workforce…with air sampling and soil sampling [experts]. So we are continually gathering the necessary resources to deal with this incident ... I think it would be fair to say I'm retaining dozens of additional personnel to assist in various areas of expertise.
ICN: Does that include pipeline experts?