MAYFLOWER, Ark.—Anything for his treasured fishing hole. That was the mantra cycling through Jimmy Joe Johnson's head on the afternoon of Friday, March 29 as he rushed to keep a filthy stream of crude oil from spilling out of a cove and into the main body of Lake Conway.
Standing at the edge of the lake more than four months later, Johnson had his fingers crossed that his efforts that day weren't for naught. Officials with the Arkansas Department of Environmental Quality (ADEQ) say they feel certain that soon-to-come results from sediment testing will confirm what water tests revealed—that no oil reached the main body of the lake.
But Johnson won't stop fretting until he sees definitive proof that the lake wasn't sullied.
Johnson's lookout on this steamy August day is roughly nine-tenths of a mile from the spot where oil from ExxonMobil's ruptured Pegasus pipeline gushed into a subdivision of neat, brick homes. Instinct and familiarity with the local topography guided Johnson and a crew of locals to this site on that fateful Friday afternoon—a man-made dike about the length of a football field and wide enough to support two lanes of State Highway 89 traffic.
The dike isolates a 30-acre, elbow-shaped cove thick with lily pads from the sprawling 6,700-acre Lake Conway. On the day of the spill, Johnson knew he and his team were too late to keep oil out of the cove. But they were intent on stopping the plume of black goo before it contaminated the main body of a lake renowned in central Arkansas for its stocked bounty of catfish, crappie, bluegill and bass.
"We had one mission and that was to keep the oil out of the lake," Johnson, superintendent of the Mayflower streets department for 15 years, told InsideClimate News. "Once I figured out where the bust was, there was no doubt the oil was headed to Lake Conway. We used everything we had."
Johnson joined volunteer firefighters and public works employees from Faulkner County and Mayflower equipped with dump trucks and backhoes. Together, they scrambled to position plywood, dirt, rocks and close to 1,000 tons of gravel to construct barricades to keep oily water from surging over or through the dike. One of their first jobs was plugging a pair of 48-inch metal pipes connecting the cove and the main lake. Meanwhile, pumps sucked water from the bottom of the cove so it wouldn’t overflow into the lake.
"We was part of a big team," said Johnson, 50, who grew up fishing in the lake and playing in its network of nearby streams. "We was working to save our lake."
Ryan Benefield, the ADEQ's deputy director, is confident the local crew did just that.
So far, water tests in the main lake conducted by the agency have shown no signs of diluted bitumen, Benefield said. That's the type of heavy Canadian crude that the Pegasus was carrying when it broke. It’s also the type of oil that the Keystone XL pipeline will carry if it is approved.
Sediment testing throughout the spill corridor, roughly a mile long, began July 27 as the spill cleanup evolved from "response" mode, overseen by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, to the "remediation" phase, coordinated by ADEQ. Results of the sediment tests are not yet available, Benefield said.
He is convinced the sediment tests also will bring good news because water tests have repeatedly come back clean enough to be below any level of concern.
"We haven't seen anything in the main body of the lake indicating that it has been affected by the oil spill," Benefield said. "There's just no opportunity for the sediments to be impacted."
Much of the lake is quite shallow, measuring barely six feet deep, Benefield said.
Heavy metals found in diluted bitumen are a major concern with any such spill.
These compounds, which include mercury, manganese, nickel and chromium, are toxic at high doses. Some, such as arsenic and lead, can damage the human nervous system even at relatively low doses.
Neighbors Suspect Oil in Lake
Genieve Long, a 28-year-old mother and full-time college student who has lived next to Lake Conway all of her life, patrols the lake regularly. She is suspicious of the testing done by ExxonMobil and state authorities, she said, because she doesn't think they are testing lake channels where she is sure currents carried oil connected with the spill.
Oil had time to breach the State Highway 89 dike before Johnson and other workers built barricades and blocked the pair of culverts, Long said.
"I have a very good knowledge of what goes on in the lake," she said. "My father was a fisherman who taught me about fish and currents. I'm not trying to cause trouble. I'm trying to make problems go away. I'm concerned about the environment and about people's health, and that they aren't getting the attention they need."
Long said she felt rebuffed by ADEQ officials when she told them several times that she had observed oil near the cove where her family lives.
"They told me it was nothing to worry about, that it's just natural organisms decomposing," she said. "I know the difference between what I’m seeing and what I've seen all of my life. I have fished this lake, played in this lake, even waded out in it when I was a kid. I know what this lake looked like before the spill."