MAYFLOWER, Ark.—ExxonMobil did an about-face in Arkansas last week after local politicians criticized the company's plan to stop paying victims of the March 29 Pegasus pipeline spill for temporary housing.
Twenty-two homes on North Starlite Road were evacuated after the pipeline sent a stream of heavy Canadian crude oil down their block. Since then Exxon has dug up the contaminated soil around the houses and replaced it with new dirt and fresh sod. It has also been testing the soil and the interior of the homes for benzene and other chemicals.
Exxon apparently decided that the neighborhood was in such good shape that it was time for the evacuees to begin moving back into their homes. To push them in that direction, company reps told some families that Exxon wouldn't pay for temporary housing beyond August 31.
That came as a surprise to displaced residents who, lawmakers said, had been told the company would cover their replacement housing for at least six months after the disaster.
"It's horrible," said Amber Bartlett, whose home on North Starlite is half a block from the source of the spill. "They want us to go back now. We're not comfortable with that, because no one really knows if long-term health effects are linked to exposure to this."
When local politicians got word of what was happening last week they went public with their concerns—and on Friday Exxon announced that it will continue the payments indefinitely.
"Each resident is going to be different," said Exxon spokesman Aaron Stryk. "We're going to work with them to meet their individual needs. If they need more time, we'll look at each individual situation and find the best solution."
ExxonMobil is still proceeding with deals to buy homes from some residents, Stryk said.
One of Exxon's harshest critics last week was U.S. Rep. Tim Griffin, a past recipient of ExxonMobil campaign funds and usually an outspoken supporter of the pipeline industry.
Griffin is a Republican whose district includes Mayflower. On Thursday he sent a letter to Exxon suggesting the company offer temporary housing "to these victims of the spill" until the end of the year, at least. "I am angered and deeply concerned," the letter said, "that ExxonMobil would prematurely terminate housing assistance for these residents, forcing them to either move back into their homes or pay the full cost of alternative housing."
State Sen. David Sanders (R) also criticized the company's plan.
"This is cut and dry. It's simple," he said. "You simply apply the old do-right rule in this instance. For some [families] it's continuing to work with them and negotiate on the sale of the homes. For some, it's to give them more time."
Sanders said he noticed a commonality among the affected residents he'd spoken to: They hadn't hired lawyers.
Stryk said Exxon has worked with the Environmental Protection Agency and the Arkansas Department of Health to ensure that air in the homes isn't poisonous. Of the 22 homes that were officially evacuated after the spill, Exxon believes several have been deemed safe for occupancy. Two residents have moved back into their homes, and Stryk said other residents are "in various stages of moving back."
Bartlett, her husband, Ches, and their four children do not plan to be among the returnees. Because of their concerns about possible health risks from the chemicals in the oil, she said the family intends to sell their home to ExxonMobil. In recent months they've been living in a trailer home they rented from a friend.
Arkansas Attorney General Dustin McDaniel, whose office is investigating the Pegasus spill, continued his criticism of the company on Friday.
"Although I am happy that Exxon has retreated from the cold-hearted policy that it announced just yesterday, I am again frustrated with the company," McDaniel said in a statement. "I am angry that families had to experience that level of stress and that it took so much public outcry for Exxon to change its position."
InsideClimate News and the Arkansas Times have raised money through the ioby.org crowd-funding site to send two reporters—Sam Eifling and Elizabeth McGowan—to Arkansas to cover the spill and its consequences.