Part 2 of a two-part series on the residents of Mayflower, Ark., who live a short distance from the homes that were evacuated after Exxon's oil spill and who feel neglected. Read Part 1.
MAYFLOWER, Ark.—The Pegasus pipeline runs between Illinois and Texas, over streams, under rivers, through wilds, and under relatively few homes. The fact that it split open underneath a housing development was a twist of bad luck. An independent forensic metallurgical report on the faulty stretch of pipe made note of that coincidence, and gave a half-nod to possible causality: "During construction of the homes, the pipeline may have experienced vehicle loadings caused by construction equipment and/or vehicles crossing the pipeline at multiple locations, including over the fractured segment." All else equal, humans are safer keeping a distance from pipelines, and vice-versa.
The reasons for energy infrastructure to be routed away from populated areas are obvious. In the '60s, for instance, before Arkansas built Lake Maumelle some seven miles southwest of Mayflower, the state insisted Exxon move the Pegasus out of its original path. Now the pipeline merely runs through Maumelle's watershed—one of 18 drinking water sources it traverses in Arkansas alone. State leaders insist Exxon move the Pegasus even further from the lake before the pipeline is restarted, if indeed it ever is, given that the pipeline's failure threatens the drinking water source for 400,000 people in and around Little Rock. Because pipelines rarely run under neighborhoods, not a great deal is known about what happens to people when there is a break in one.
Scott Crow, Linda Lynch's son, lives next door to his mother, across the street from the church on Snuggs Circle. On the day of the spill, when he heard oil was gushing out of the ground in Northwoods, his first thought was that someone had struck it rich. He grabbed a digital camera and tromped through the weeds that cover the pipeline's easement. It took him five minutes to reach the black swamp.
At the time, the smell didn't alarm him much. "It was like being at the gas station and there being oil on the ground," he said. "I figured it was probably about as dangerous as that, at the time, because there weren't announcements coming saying you need to get out of town." He posted photos to Facebook; news outlets that had been blocked from entering the subdivision picked them up. That night, he said, the smell became overpowering, "like being in a house on fire." He began developing headaches, nausea. A few days later, he became dizzy while working in his yard and fell to his knees
The first indication that he could be in danger came from strangers writing to him online and saying, hey, you really ought not to breathe that stuff. "Before this I didn't know the difference between the Keystone XL and a Keystone beer," Crow said, referring to the controversial oil pipeline many times the size of Pegasus that is proposed to run from Canada to the Gulf of Mexico. "It wasn't something I was studying up on." Early town meetings weren't much help. To Crow, it seemed that representatives from the state and from Exxon were more interested in keeping everyone calm than in addressing concerns directly. "Exxon finally, when they showed up, it felt like 'Red Dawn,' " he said. "You felt like your town was being taken over and there wasn't anything you could do about it. Any questions you asked it was like go back to your house." At their first meeting with officials, falling as it did so close after the Good Friday pipeline break, residents who attended got to take home a little Easter basket, courtesy of Exxon, for their troubles.
It was mid-April before they got word—official word, via the news—that the pipeline contained some known carcinogens and other chemicals that might explain the headaches and dizziness. It was a major revelation, not least because Crow had suffered a round of cancer two years earlier that cost him one testicle and left him monitoring a stable mass on the other. Crow and his wife, Barbara Bogard Crow, drove to the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences medical center in Little Rock, they say, where they received two different receptions. Crow told his attending physician that he was worried about how close he was living to the oil spill. He underwent a few tests and emerged with no definitive diagnosis. Barbara, meanwhile, didn't mention the oil spill. Doctors ran several tests and diagnosed her with bronchitis. Exxon's claims department paid for that visit for the two of them but hasn't answered their calls since. Aaron Stryk, an Exxon spokesman, said in an email that all health claims from Mayflower are handled "on a case-by-case basis" and that "for all valid claims, we have paid all medical expenses."
These days, after a rain, Barbara's tongue tingles with a metallic flavor.
"I feel like anything on this side of Northwoods, they don't care about," Crow said. "If they'd let us know from the get-go, I could've gotten out of there for a while. Two weeks I'm out here breathing it and no one's telling me?