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In the Path of Exxon's Pegasus Pipeline Across Arkansas: People, Water, Farms (Part 2)

The broken pipe snakes through a crucial Ark. watershed where there's only one shut-off valve for the line, a fact that is making state officials nervous.

By Sam Eifling, David Koon and Elizabeth McGowan

Sep 4, 2013

This is Part 2 of a series looking at the people and scenery along the route of ExxonMobil’s Pegasus pipeline, which spilled an estimated 210,000 gallons of heavy Canadian crude oil into the town of Mayflower, Ark. Read Part 1.

MAYFLOWER, Ark.—At sunset one evening, Ryan Senia, a displaced former resident of the Northwoods subdivision, walks around his side yard, and into a wide orange clayscape. This area used to be backyards, until crude oil swamped it and Exxon's crews stripped away trees and exhumed tons of earth.

"This is all new dirt," Senia says over the thrum of a generator powering a tall light. He walks behind a neighbor's empty home where the remnants of a former yard—a bike, a hose, a lawnmower, a propane grill, part of a birdbath—clutter the back porch. "Come up over here, you can see they've dug up under the slab," he says. "You can see how deep they've dug it. So you know the oil is underground."

Senia turns to another home's foundation. There, in a grey puddle a foot beneath the brick, floats a glossy black blob the size of a fried egg. "It's eye-opening to see the oil right there," he says. "I know it's not a large amount, but that's only what you can see. The oil's under the house."

This is 20 weeks after the spill. Unified Command has cleared 19 of the 22 homes that were under mandatory evacuation as safe for re-entry, Senia's included, and two or three families have apparently moved back. Senia, however, will never return. He just sold his home to Exxon. At sundown on a weeknight, the driveways of Starlite Road North are blank, the windows are dark and all is quiet but for the generator and the yo-yoing moans of cicadas.

Lake Maumelle

Up state Highway 113 near the western side of Lake Maumelle in Pulaski County is a "Jesus Saves" sign tacked to an oak tree. The wooden, hand-lettered sign points like a welcoming arrow to an opening in the forest where hikers can merge onto the Ouachita National Forest Trail, which wends its way along the northern edge of the impound lake.

This section of the trail roughly parallels the 13.5 miles of pipe that snake through a watershed that provides water for 400,000 people in and around Little Rock. About one in seven Arkansans drinks, bathes, cooks and cleans with water from the reservoir.

Like the drone of cicadas and the babble of creeks, the Pegasus—with its distinctive red, yellow and black markers—is pretty much a constant hiking partner. Sometimes the trail runs right atop the buried spine of the pipeline itself. In places, rain has rutted gullies in the reddish soil, exposing the top of the pipe to the elements.

Expansive views of the 8,900-acre lake are never far away. At points, the Pegasus skirts within 600 feet of the lake's edge. West of Highway 113 it's easy to count the spots—one, two, three— where the Pegasus crosses the Maumelle River, which Little Rock's water utility dammed in 1957 to create the lake. East of Highway 113, the Pegasus runs through miles of rugged, steep terrain without road access. At least half a dozen robust creeks drain that area, carving a direct path to the lake below.

There's only one shut-off valve for the Pegasus in the 88,000-acre watershed, a fact that makes Central Arkansas Water nervous. The valve is at the western end of Lake Maumelle and would require at least one Exxon representative to drive to the site to manually close it. The utility figures at least two hours would pass from the time a rupture was detected to the time the valve was closed. By then, the utility estimates that about 1.2 million gallons of oil could escape into the watershed.

The utility's auxiliary water supply, little Lake Winona, can provide only 38 percent of Central Arkansas Water's daily requirements. If Lake Maumelle took a shot of oil, the utility would have to draw and treat water pulled from beneath the Arkansas River, a highway for barges. "The Arkansas River ... would not be anybody's second, third or fourth choice" as a drinking water source, said Graham Rich, the utility's chief executive officer.

Jessieville: Milepost 271.8

Up state Highway 7 from the sprawl of drug stores and restaurants at the west gate of Hot Springs Village, the sleepy burg of Jessieville sits like a jewel in rolling hills and deep greenery.

Superintendent Andy Curry

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