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.

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The backyards of homes in Mayflower that were affected by ExxonMobil's March 29 oil pipeline rupture. Clean-up crews were forced to strip away oil-saturated trees, exhume tons of earth and fill the yards with new dirt, leaving an orange clayscape. Homeowners say oil is still visible under their houses. Credit: Brian Chilson

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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

Jessieville High School’s stern main building resembles schools from little towns all over Arkansas, with puzzle-piece stonework walls built by the WPA. The Pegasus runs about 800 feet beyond the back fence of the property. Before he fielded a reporter’s call, Andy Curry, superintendent of the 910-student district, didn’t know his school might be nearer to the Pegasus than any other in Arkansas. Though Curry knew a pipeline was nearby (hunters install deer stands along the easement, he said) he didn’t know it carried petroleum, and he didn’t know it was the same line that ruptured in Mayflower. During his three-year tenure, he says, Exxon hasn’t contacted the school with instructions on what to do in case of a leak.

By Curry’s reading, the Mayflower story faded quickly from news coverage in his area. To him, it was just like the Gulf spill that he says BP “PR’ed” to death.

“Our society is about the big news story of the day,” Curry says. “Everybody forgets about it, and there’s something new the next day, and we forget about that. … It seems like [a spill] on the mainland, around people, would be a huge news story for awhile. But you really haven’t heard anything else about it.”

South of the school, 100 yards from where the pipeline crosses Highway 7, Todd Breedlove and 9-year-old Todd Jr. are carrying boxes into an old storefront he rents as storage for his small business. The Breedloves live in Hot Springs Village.

The father says he had no idea the pipeline he drives above several times a week carried petroleum, or that it is the one Mayflower made famous. In a perfect world, Breedlove says, nobody would have a pipeline running near their home. Instead, we all have to shoulder some risk. Oil companies irritate him, constantly hiking gas prices while shipping crude overseas. But, he says, “oil greases the wheels of democracy, and it’s just one of those things where you’ve got to have it in the future.”

Even so, Breedlove admits he found parts of Exxon’s response to the Mayflower pipeline breach “disturbing.”

“It’s a scary thing when, with the kind of money they have, they can come in and say: ‘Why don’t we just buy you a new house and you shut up?’ ” Breedlove says, looking down at his son from time to time. “That’s when we all have to say: ‘What’s right is right. I’m not going to go after you, but I’m not going to sell out either.'”

Ouachita River: Milepost 257.7

Dan Rubio lives by the Hot Springs airport, where he works on planes. His friend Tim Lute lives in the trailer park on the hill above the pipeline. On a summer afternoon, Lute and Rubio pull up in a creaking 1971 Chevy pickup — a former Coca-Cola bottling truck apparently held together with prayer. In the back, Tim’s son T.J. and his friend Dakota Blackburn had come down to swim with Lute’s blue heeler puppy, in the spot between Lakes Ouachita and Hamilton where the pipeline intersects the Ouachita River.

Ouachita River

The park features a playground, concrete picnic tables, a boat dock, and a tree with a rope swing that leans out over the wide, deep, lovely river. Homes with backyard boathouses surround the park, secluded in a maze of switchback streets. Crickets squeal in the grass, and boats putt past. Half a mile upstream the county’s water authority has an intake point that supplies water for some 90,000 people. Downstream is open water and Lake Hamilton.

T.J. scales the tree with the swing. The rope arches out over the water, and the boy drops with a whoop and a splash. Rubio stands by a picnic table and looks out at the Ouachita. He was a fisherman in Alaska in March 1989, when the Exxon Valdez ran aground in Prince William Sound. Though he’s leaving Arkansas soon for work, Rubio says he wants to return to Garland County, buy a place, and live near the water for the rest of his life. The prospect of oil escaping into this river petrifies him.

“Everybody I know hunts and fishes. When you walk along the lakes here, you see the fish, you see the deer,” he says. “To me, there’s nothing wrong with progress and doing what we have to do. … But they can’t have any chance of what happened in Mayflower happening here. … Here, the impact would be catastrophic.”

A couple of times a year, Exxon updates the county on what to do in such an event. Joy Sanders, director of Garland County Emergency Management, says that once, during a drill, Exxon dumped truckloads of flax seed into the spot where the Pegasus crosses the Ouachita River, to see whether a spill there could pollute the drinking water intake upstream. The seeds traveled into coves, but never reached the upstream dam.

While that test convinced Sanders that a breach wouldn’t poison the water supply, she says the “cascading event” would still overwhelm emergency services. “We’re depending on Exxon and their response team to be there,” she says. “Honestly, with the equipment and resources that are available in Garland County, we wouldn’t be able to handle it.”

The odds of an accident happening here are slim. But then, the Pegasus has cracked open in Garland County before, in 1995, where the pipeline crosses Glazypeau Road, five miles from the county’s emergency management headquarters.

“Evidently the county road grader got too deep after grading over and over and over,” Sanders says, “and finally it got down low enough that it hit the pipeline.”

Department of Transportation records show that moment of carelessness resulted in a 600-barrel spill, about one-eighth of what the Pegasus would dump in Mayflower 18 years later.

Caddo River: Milepost 233.3

One of the few people in Arkansas who would see an instant upside in case of a disaster is a property owner on the Caddo, upstream of DeGray Lake. Frank Canale—loud, outspoken, tanned a uniform bronze—rents cabins in Glenwood, near where the Pegasus crosses the Caddo close to Mud Lake Road.

Originally from Memphis, Canale long made his living as an international real estate developer. He built the cabins on the Caddo when he came to Arkansas to care for his ailing mother, intending to sell them. Then the real estate market seized up in the credit crunch, trapping Canale in this Arkansas paradise.

His cabins on the Caddo, about 200 yards upriver from the pipeline, are picturesque: secluded, landscaped, with a terraced deck in the cool shade and steps that lead down to the waterline. The Caddo here lies in a cradle of stone rimmed by mountains, in a channel cut by a thousand-thousand years of flood. Most of the sunburnt paddlers who descend on weekends hail from Louisiana and Texas, he said, flatlanders craving trees and contours.

On a recent day, he was waiting to talk with someone from an auction company. He’s ready to cash out. He’s headed to Ecuador, he says, where some opportunities have opened. A spill? Why, that would certainly be one way out.

“Really, that would probably be my savior if that thing were to bust and wipe me out,” he says, laughing. “I’d probably get more from [Exxon] than I could ever sell the place for.”

A day later, up the river in Glenwood, Jim Smedley, owner of Arrowhead Cabin and Canoe, is shuttling canoeists back and forth in one of his white buses. A resident of Little Rock who flies helicopters for the National Guard, Smedley didn’t know the pipeline that ruptured in Mayflower also crosses the river he has floated dozens of times. A spill on the Caddo, he says, would be devastating.

“I understand we’ve got to have oil to function,” he says. “At the same time, if there has to be risk involved, there’s got to be some sort of inspection procedure. I’m not sure how they do it, but if that pipeline is that old, I’m sure it’s weak in a lot of places. There’s been land shift faults and everything else.”

The Caddo

Smedley says he’d like to think that Exxon and other oil companies would do the right thing to protect places like the Caddo River. But the spills in the Gulf and in Mayflower undermine that faith.

“I think the risk and the reward have to be balanced—the environmental impact,” he says. “I think they wait for something like this to happen to fix a problem they already knew about. Maybe they knew about it, maybe they didn’t. Maybe it was going to be too expensive to fix it.”

Red River: Half of a mile south of milepost 160.1

In far Southwest Arkansas, take state Highway 108 past a vast concrete plant that squats on land flat as a cast iron griddle to a place called Matteson’s Gin. From there, turn south past a cornfield, where the brown August crop presses in and turns the road into a gutter that fills with dust in the rearview. Pass an abandoned house trailer. Pass an Exxon valve slumbering in a chain link and barbed wire cage. Round a bend. Turn off at a wide, graveled spot, and finally you can drive onto the easement of the Pegasus pipeline itself, two brown ruts cutting through the high grass, the edge of the wide boulevard to nowhere guarded by deer stands on stilts.

Walk along the pipeline markers and a string of oak stakes tied with red ribbon. The grass is high, and on a cool morning, your jeans will soon be drenched in dew to the hip. In the underbrush, doves coo and sigh. There is the smell of wild mint.

Finally, a bright spot in the sky up ahead, the sound of water, a little rise, and then a view — the low bluff over the Red River, where Arkansas hands the Pegasus to Texas.

It’s ironic that when the pipeline was built in the 1940s, engineers chose to have it cross the Red here—an old steamboat landing once called Lakeport, according to a cast-aluminum historical marker up on the highway. When the pipeline is running, 95,000 barrels a day blast through that spot, part of the network built to deliver the fossil fuels that long ago elbowed the steamboats off this river.

It’s beautiful here. The Red gleams in the sun, with sandy banks wide and blond. A great, bone-white snag breaks the current in a rippling V. On the far shore, birds drink at the edge of the water, then spin away. There is nothing of people in sight, except for the yellow and black pipeline markers.

This story is part of a joint investigative project by Arkansas Times and Pulitzer Prize winning InsideClimate News. Funding for the project comes from readers who donated to an crowdfunding campaign that raised nearly $27,000 and from the Fund for Investigative Journalism.

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