American property owners battling to stop energy companies from snaking oil pipelines across their lands need only look to Mayflower, Ark., for a window into what can go wrong when pipelines burst in backyards.
Eight months after an ExxonMobil pipeline leaked Canadian oil across an Arkansas subdivision, a cloud of uncertainty looms large over the young families, singles and retirees who chose the affordable, decade-old Northwoods neighborhood to establish roots. Nearly half of them have put their houses up for sale in search of a fresh start they never wanted.
"The area is blanketed with 'For Sale' signs," said April Lane, a community health advocate who has worked with the spill victims. Twenty-nine of the development's 62 homes have either been sold to Exxon under its buy-out program or are on the open market.
Some people were forced to sell because oil settled in their homes' foundations, where removing it is nearly impossible. Others chose to leave because of fears about potential health effects and the marketability of their properties. Those who are staying aren't necessarily doing so by choice: Many don't have enough equity to afford a down payment on a new home in another suburb, according to local real estate brokers.
The upheaval has torn at the fabric of the once tight-knit central Arkansas neighborhood, where barbecues were regularly held and neighbors watched after each other's kids, who played in Northwoods' three cul-de-sacs and five streets. Ryan Senia, a 30-year-old bachelor who bought his Northwoods home in 2009, said it was either sell to Exxon now or risk "holding onto that thing forever."
"It's like selling a salvaged car—nobody wants to buy it."
Indeed, only Exxon is buying in Mayflower, casting a pall over real estate prospects across the town of 2,200. The company has purchased 20 of the 29 homes for sale in Northwoods—three of which Exxon demolished after a soil assessment revealed oil in the foundations.
As far as the remaining nine, "it's going to be really, really difficult to sell those houses," said Jerry Hill, a broker with ERA Henley Real Estate in nearby Conway, who has been trying to sell one of the Northwoods homes for three months. "Selling them is almost impossible at this point in time," she said.
"We're in an ambiguous situation that's never happened before," said Glen Rega, an agent at the real estate company Crye-Leike who represents two sellers in Northwoods. But that is no reason for pessimism, he said. "I'm sure once the first buyer goes in there and doesn't have any issues, then more will see the value that's there."
Before and After
The subdivision was thrust into this position on March 29, when 5,000 barrels of oil spewed out of Exxon's 65-year-old Pegasus pipeline. Twenty-two homes were evacuated, almost one-third of the Northwoods development.
The leaked oil was from Alberta's tar sands region, similar to the diluted bitumen (dilbit) that would flow through the controversial Keystone XL project, if it's built. Dilbit has been shown to be more difficult to clean up than conventional oil—but it wasn't on the radar of most Northwoods residents. Few if any even knew that an oil pipeline was buried under their lawns.
Before the accident, Northwoods was a typical pleasant middle-class subdivision—two-story brick homes, quarter-acre lots, big garages, wooden fences and crew-cut grass. The first home in the neighborhood was built in 2003. In real estate terms, homeowners got more house for considerably less money than in a suburb closer to Little Rock, 20 miles away. And since most people weren't planning on moving for many years, they also got the hope of rising home values and resale values, and financial security.
Northwoods "had beautiful resale value before [the oil spill]—one of the only areas in Mayflower with nice, new homes like that," said Kim Burks, a Crye-Leike agent who represents a Northwoods seller. While most people came to Northwoods with plans to stay for life, seven homes were put back on the market in the last few years before the spill. They all sold within three months for prices ranging from $115,000 to $189,000.
ExxonMobil bought the 20 houses for their pre-spill values of between $140,000 and $195,000. The nine houses on the market are within $10,000 of those amounts.
Whether and when those will sell—and for how much—is anyone's guess. There's no historical data about how pipeline spills affect home values and housing markets, because most crude oil pipelines run through rural or undeveloped areas. Angela Hill, the assessor of Faulkner County, where Mayflower is located, said the county hasn't reduced its assessed values of Northwoods properties. "It's a tough one because there's not a whole lot for us to look at where it's happened before," Hill said. "There are lots of spills out there, but not in residential neighborhoods."