Part 1 of a two-part series on the residents of Mayflower, Ark., who live just a short distance from the homes that were evacuated following Exxon's oil spill. Read Part 2.
MAYFLOWER, Ark.—In the week after an oil spill strangled the air in Ann Jarrell's neighborhood, tens of thousands of her bees either died or went mad.
Jarrell has kept bees in her backyard since she moved to Mayflower almost two years ago. Living in the hamlet between Little Rock and Conway has afforded her the chance to be close to her daughter, Jennifer. Behind her three-bedroom brick home, at the corner of her small fenced-in yard, she tended to two beehives. Apiarists select and breed passive bees, and Jarrell's were no different, until they were.
ExxonMobil's Pegasus pipeline ruptured March 29, pouring what the company says was at least 200,000 gallons of oil into Mayflower. For days, the stench blowing from the sour heavy Canadian crude was rank. It was the familiar smell of oil, intensified. "Burning tires," Jarrell said. "It was just putrid. You'd smell it and you would gag." But no one told her it could be any more worrisome than the oil-stink of hot asphalt. Early on, Jarrell called the Mayflower police to ask whether she was in danger. A man on the other end told her she was merely noticing an additive meant to alert people to a leak, like the artificial chemical that gives natural gas its distinct aroma. (That was flatly wrong.) A few days later, an Exxon employee working on the cleanup came near her house, and Jarrell asked about the smell. The woman told her not to fret. "I didn't know what we were breathing in was toxic," Jarrell said recently. "Nobody was giving us any information."
Jarrell stayed put in her house, some 300 yards from the rupture site in the Northwoods subdivision and about 200 yards west of homes that were under a mandatory evacuation order. So did Jennifer and Jennifer's baby, Logan, who was 15 weeks old when the pipe broke. Just an additive, after all. Nothing to worry about. Only in late April would she learn, at an Earth Day meeting in nearby Conway where citizens swapped oil spill information, from a report by a Louisiana firm called the Subra Co., that the Wabasca Heavy Crude that Exxon was forcing through the old pipeline needed a formidable shot of lubricating chemicals, called diluents, to grease its passage. Together, the brew was brimming with polyaromatic hydrocarbons, which are a family of molecules that you don't want in or on your body, and benzene, a carcinogen that causes a range of sicknesses with acute or prolonged exposure. It's impossible to say how much of what spilled were aromatics, but even a conservative estimate would place tens of thousands of gallons of poison in the town's air.
In the days after the pipe rupture, air monitoring tests show, the surrounding neighborhood showed dangerous levels of benzene and possibly harmful levels of octane, cyclohexane, heptane, and hexane, along with detectible levels of toluene, butane, pentane and several other industrial chemicals. While the Mayflower Unified Command—a joint response body made up of state, federal and Exxon representatives—evacuated some residents of the Northwoods subdivision and notified others, people who lived just a short distance west of those backyards weren't told of the risks.
But the bees provided a clue. Piles of oil-stained bees turned up on the porch of one of the hives. Jarrell called the State Plant Board. Elizabeth Scott, one of the agency's two full-time bee specialists, went with two other inspectors on April 5 to help move Jarrell's two hives to a remote farm. She remembers it was late, and the ground was soggy. Even a week after the spill, Scott told InsideClimate News, "There was an odor in the whole town, like petroleum."
The next day, Jarrell took stock of the hives. She found them only half-full—tens of thousands of bees hadn't survived the previous day in her yard—and those who remained were highly aggressive. Normally, bees didn't mind a visit. "These would go back, get more bees, and come back with a bigger group of bees to come after us," Jarrell said.
The Mistake That Was Made