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Arkansas Oil Spill Shatters American Dream of Families Still Displaced From New Homes

Uprooted and anxious, Arkansans find themselves thrust into the debate about the Canadian oil that filled their streets and the safety of such pipelines.

May 2, 2013
Clean-up workers at the site of Exxon's pipeline spill

It has been more than a month now, and Amber Bartlett has had enough of hotels and apartments and trailer homes. Of crowded rooms whose thin walls amplify the bickering of her four children. Of piles of toys and clothes overflowing from drawers and suitcases. Of not knowing, day to day, where her life is headed.

She wants to be back in her five-bedroom, three-bathroom home at 16 Starlite Road North in Mayflower, Ark.

Ryan Senia, the Bartletts' next-door neighbor, is plenty ready to go home, too. For the past month the 29-year-old electrical engineer has been sleeping on a friend's couch instead of in his bed at 20 Starlite Road North. His power tools and equipment are gathering dust in his garage. His grill sits in his backyard, unused.

The Bartletts and Senia are among 21 families who were evacuated from their homes on March 29, after an ExxonMobil pipeline spilled at least 210,000 gallons of heavy Canadian crude oil into their neighborhood.  

For many of them, buying a home in the six-year-old North Woods subdivision was not only the biggest financial investment of their lives, but an emotional investment as well. North Woods would be a good place to live, they believed, with respected schools, sprawling yards and the convenience of being just a short drive from Little Rock, the state capital. It was a beautiful place, too—about 60 spacious brick houses surrounded by a thick forest of trees and creeks where children could play.

"A lot of people were ecstatic" about moving into North Woods, Senia said. "Now, people feel like that dream is shattered due to the uncertainty."

The North Woods families have been thrust into the national debate about the type of crude oil that spilled into their neighborhood—a heavy Canadian oil called diluted bitumen or dilbit—and about the safety of the pipelines that carry the oil. A 2010 pipeline spill that dumped dilbit into Michigan's Kalamazoo River is still being cleaned up today, almost three years later. Meanwhile, the Obama administration is deciding whether to approve the Keystone XL pipeline, which would carry millions of gallons of dilbit from Alberta, Canada, to the Texas Gulf Coast.

Until March 29, Good Friday, the North Woods residents hadn't been touched by this debate. Neither the Bartletts nor Senia had heard of dilbit or paid much attention to the controversy over the Keystone project. They didn't even know that an Exxon pipeline lay buried nearby until oil began flowing down their street.

She Was Reading a Book When the Phone Rang

Mayflower police got the first 911 call at 2:44 p.m. It came from Jennifer Dement of 50 Starlite Road North. "Caller adv that a pipe busted and oil is spilling throughout the neighborhood!!" the 911 entry says.

A 22-foot-long section of ExxonMobil's Pegasus pipeline had split open in front of two houses on Starlite Road North and in the forest behind the street. The 858-mile line carries Canadian dilbit from Illinois to Texas, and some of that oil was now blanketing backyards and spilling into the street, up driveways and around a cul-de-sac. Oil was flowing in the other direction, too—away from the neighborhood and into the tiny streams that feed into a swampy cove of Lake Conway, a popular recreation site about a mile away.

Dilbit is composed of a heavy oil known as bitumen that has been diluted with liquid chemicals—which can include benzene—so it can move through pipelines. Once dilbit is released from a pipeline, the chemicals gradually evaporate into the environment.

Amber Bartlett had just settled down to read "Crossroads," a Christian novel about a businessman and his near-death experience. She had driven the 20 miles to Little Rock that morning to speak about her IT job at the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences with students in the school's medical records degree program. Her husband, Ches, a real estate appraiser for the state highway department, was still at work, and she was looking forward to a few minutes of peace before the kids got home from school.

The phone rang just after 3 p.m. It was Raegen, her 16-year-old daughter, calling from her car. Police had closed off the subdivision and wouldn’t let her through the gated entrance.

"There's an oil spill," Raegen said. "In our neighborhood."

Bartlett ran to the front door. She saw oil rolling down the street in waves, lapping at the front yard and pouring into a storm drain near her driveway. An acrid stench filled the air.

By the time the police let Raegen through the barricade a few minutes later, the oil had formed a virtual moat between the Bartletts' home and the rest of the street. Bartlett threw her daughter a pair of boots, and Raegen waded through the oil to the house.

They were grabbing clothes and toiletries when the phone rang again. This time it was the principal at the elementary school that 11-year-old Kalob and 5-year-old Kaden attend. Their school bus couldn’t get into the subdivision, so the boys were back at school, waiting to be picked up.

"If this [spill] would've happened 30 minutes later, our kids would've been outside playing," Bartlett said.

Ryan Senia was also stopped at the police barricade. He had been at work in Little Rock when a friend texted him about the spill. He immediately got in his Volkswagen Passat and headed home.

A "sulfur smell" hung in the air, Senia said. Breathing it gave him the sensation you get "if you tried to spray paint in an enclosed room. You get a headache. That's how I kind of felt."

Senia couldn't persuade the police to let him through the blockade. So he went to a friend's house near the town of Sherwood, about 40 miles away.

The next afternoon, Exxon held a meeting in the Mayflower High School cafeteria, which residents learned about through word of mouth. Company representatives gathered phone numbers and email addresses from the displaced families and promised to pay their hotel bills and other living expenses.

Senia didn't want to stay in a hotel. So he went back to his friend's place in Sherwood.

Life Became More Hectic by the Day

At first, the Bartlett children were excited about staying in a hotel and eating at their favorite restaurants every night. They splashed in the indoor pool and loaded up their plates at the breakfast buffet. It was almost like being on vacation, with ExxonMobil footing the bill.

"They saw it as an adventure," Bartlett said.

But with six people crowded into two hotel rooms, life became "more hectic by the day." The baby of the family, three-year-old Aluren, needed to go to bed earlier than the older children. And being away from the bus route meant that Kalob and Kaden had to be driven back and forth to school.

The adventure quickly deteriorated into "'I want my own room,'" Bartlett said. "They're arguing and bickering worse than they normally do."

To get the kids out of the cramped quarters, the family began spending weekends at Ches's mother's house, 60 miles away. Or at Amber's mother's home, 90 miles away.

On April 14, Exxon notified the Bartletts by email that it would pay each evacuated family $10,000 (in addition to their hotel bills and other expenses) for the inconvenience they had suffered, a check they've since received. The email also said the company would buy homes damaged by the oil at their pre-spill value.

The Bartletts immediately decided to accept the offer.

Amber Bartlett said she and Ches just wouldn't feel comfortable letting their kids play in the yard or in the woods where toxins and chemicals had spilled.

Exxon and local health authorities have assured the people of Mayflower that air quality tests show the air is safe to breathe. Still, Bartlett worries about the long-term effects of the oil.

In the first weeks after the spill Kalob and Kaden had diarrhea and vomiting. She wasn't sure if it was something they picked up at school or a reaction to the oil.

Raegen and Aluren have been okay. But when Amber returned to the house the week after the spill she quickly became nauseated and vomited. In mid-April, she visited the house again, so consultants from the Arkansas Attorney General's office could get inside to test the air. By the time she left, an hour later, she had a bad headache and itchy, burning eyes.

Last week when she and Ches stopped by again, she was fine. The smell was all but gone.

The family member whose health has been most affected by the spill is Charlie, their four-year-old dog, who is staying in Mayflower with Amber's sister.

A few weeks after the spill, Charlie's back legs were temporarily paralyzed after he got loose and ran through an oily patch. Exxon paid for the three days Charlie spent with a veterinarian neurologist.

"I'm just fortunate that it wasn't one my kids," Bartlett said.

From Hotel to Apartment to Trailer

In late April, representatives from Crawford & Company, an Atlanta-based claims management firm Exxon hired to help compensate families, told the Bartletts it would be "quite a bit longer" before they could move back home and offered to help them find an apartment.

On April 26, the Bartletts moved into a three-bedroom, two-bathroom apartment in the town of Maumelle, about 10 miles away. It was unfurnished, so Exxon paid for furniture, cookware and other necessities.

In an interview on her first day in the new apartment, Bartlett said it was "doable," even though it was much smaller than their house on Starlite Road North.

But just five days later, the Bartletts had to move again, after other tenants in the apartment complex complained that their kids were too loud. Exxon quickly offered to pay for the family to return to their hotel, and to let them to keep the lease on the apartment.

Instead, the Bartletts accepted a friend’s offer of a fully furnished trailer home in Mayflower, about two miles from their house in North Woods. They moved in on Tuesday.

"We feel like gypsies, like vagabonds," Bartlett said Wednesday morning, her voice tinged with fatigue. "My children are beginning to have a real difficult time with it. Nothing is routine or familiar to them. I just want it to be over."

For Ryan Senia, the hardest part of this experience has been his feeling of displacement.

Every other day or so he goes back to pick up the mail or gather more belongings or, sometimes, just to sit on his own couch in the comfort of his own home. He had been planning to sell the house before the spill, so he could move to a younger, hipper neighborhood in Little Rock. But he didn't want the move to happen like this, with the stigma of spilled oil tarring the neighborhood's reputation—a place he called a "high-quality neighborhood for middle class people."

Now, his once-quiet neighborhood is groaning with the sounds of the heavy trucks that are sucking up oil and tearing up and replacing streets and concrete curbs. Oil-soaked trees and grass have been torn from their roots.

"Even though I had it up for sale, it's still where I was hanging my hat," Senia said. "I think about home a lot."

Living in Limbo

Today, almost five weeks after the spill, the 21 families evacuated from the North Woods subdivision in Mayflower, Ark. are still living in limbo.

On April 29 ExxonMobil announced that it would begin a "reentry plan" for them to return home in the next few weeks, a process that includes air sampling by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

Exxon's offer to buy the 11 homes closest to the spill, including the Bartletts' and Senia's, still stands. The company has a slightly different plan for the 10 other homeowners who were evacuated but whose property wasn't touched by the oil. If they put their houses up for sale and can't find buyers—or if the best offer comes in lower than it would have before the spill—Exxon will either buy the house or make up the difference in the sales price.

Exactly how and when these plans will be executed still isn’t clear.

Senia said a Crawford & Company representative told him the homeowners should "'expect to receive a 130-page document in the near future'" that the firm will deliver in person. Exxon spokesman Russ Roberts told InsideClimate News that "specific details of the plan will be shared with [homeowners] in the coming days."

The objective of the compensation program is to make residents "whole as a result of the pipeline incident," Roberts said.

That's the same promise Amber Bartlett remembers another Exxon employee making the day after the spill occurred.

She said the man seemed very sincere when he said the company would "'make our family whole again.' And I believed him, because I take people at face value."

But Bartlett is no longer sure Exxon can actually fulfill that promise. Even if the company pays them enough to build a new house as big as their old one, in a neighborhood with schools as good as those her children now attend, where will her family live for the many months it will take for it to be built? In their friend's trailer?

Money alone "does not compensate us for what we’ve had to go through," she said.

Bartlett said her Christian faith and the members of her First Baptist Church have helped keep her grounded during this difficult period. She said she's come to put the pipeline spill into perspective, and is grateful that her family, while displaced, is still together and healthy.

"Yes, we're out of our home," she said. "But we're all okay. And we're all going to be okay."

Senia's experience has led him down a slightly different path. He's thinking more about pipelines these days, and about the research he'll do before he buys his next house. And he wants to know what can be done to keep another spill from happening in some other neighborhood. "What would need to be different in the future?" he asks.

On Wednesday a friend called Senia to tell him that the next leak has already happened. It was a small one—only 40 gallons—on a section of ExxonMobil's Pegasus line that cuts through a neighborhood in Ripley County, Mo. 

"It's just upsetting," Senia said. "Now it's leaking somewhere else."

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