In Exxon Pipeline Relocation Push, Zero Risk to Drinking Water Is the Goal

Only one manually-operated valve exists along the watershed's pipeline. About a million gallons of oil could escape in the time it could take to close it.

Central Arkansas Water's John Tynan
Central Arkansas Water's John Tynan/Credit: Brian Chilson

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LITTLE ROCK, Ark.—Central Arkansas Water is fully aware that its push to relocate the compromised Pegasus pipeline out of its watershed will likely become a NIMBY issue.

But that hasn’t stopped the utility from continuing its bulldog-like push for ExxonMobil to remove 13.5 miles of mostly buried pipeline from the northern edge of Lake Maumelle. The man-made lake provides 67 million gallons of water per day to 400,000 residential, commercial and industrial customers in and around Little Rock.

“We want zero risk,” said John Tynan, the utility’s watershed protection manager. “That’s why we’re asking for the relocation. Our question is, how do we make this a reality?”

Tynan and other Central Arkansas Water managers broached the topic again on Aug. 26 when the Exxon brass presented the company’s latest findings to the utility and other public officials at a meeting in Little Rock.

Karen Tyrone, an Exxon vice president, said the company wouldn’t submit a plan to restart the pipeline to federal regulators “until we understand what happened and believe that we have the actions to prevent it from happening again,” according to a report by KUAR-FM in Little Rock.

Arkansas officials in turn insisted that if the line is reopened, Exxon must surpass federal guidelines in maintaining the pipe around Lake Maumelle. If Central Arkansas Water can’t get the pipeline moved out of its watershed, Tynan said, every measure should be taken to reduce the risk of a spill.

Relocating the pipe would be anything but cheap. Andrew Black, president and chief executive officer of the Association of Oil Pipe Lines, said “a rule of thumb” on pipeline construction is $2.5 million to $3 million per mile. Black participated in a recent radio broadcast of “The Diane Rehm Show” dedicated to oil pipeline issues.

A layperson’s calculation reveals that moving the pipeline to the western edge of the watershed and then back to its current path past Lake Winona would add at least 40 miles to the route. That would suggest a minimum cost of $100 million to relocate the pipeline.

Lake Maumelle Watershed

In a recent interview, Tynan said the conversation about relocating the Pegasus needs to include everyone with a stake in the lake or the pipeline—but that deciding how to reroute the line is ultimately Exxon’s responsibility.

“We haven’t decided on where Pegasus should go because we’re not oil pipeline specialists,” Tynan said. “That’s where Exxon, its contractors and the people who eat, sleep and breathe pipelines need to come in and decide where it goes. It’s something local, state and federal officials need to be discussing, and we’re encouraging that dialogue to start.”

The Pegasus hasn’t pumped any oil since the Mayflower spill on March 29. And Exxon has hinted that the 65-year-old pipeline, which stretches 850 miles across four states from Patoka, Ill., to Nederland, Texas, might never re-open.

Despite that, Central Arkansas Water is still pursuing the rerouting angle.

“People expect us to ask the questions we do,” said Robert Hart, the utility’s technical services officer. “They want us to push and not be laid back and assume that everything is being taken care of. Where all of this will end up, we just don’t know.”

Mayflower Spill Prompts Utility to Redouble Efforts

Central Arkansas Water began worrying about a spill on the Pegasus long before the rupture in Mayflower spilled 5,000 barrels of heavy crude oil just eight pipeline miles northeast of the lake.

In May 2009, the utility created a risk mitigation plan with a heavy emphasis on the pipeline. It has conducted tabletop and field exercises with emergency responders that simulated spills in creeks the Pegasus crosses and is outfitting a lakeside trailer with oil spill response equipment that can be quickly deployed. The utility has also partnered with Exxon to install a storage facility on the lake’s north shore equipped with 3,000 feet of boom.

Utility staffers keep an eye on the pipeline when making their regular rounds plus do inspections on an all-terrain vehicle twice a year. Exxon patrols the pipeline via airplane twice a week.

After the spill in Mayflower, the utility redoubled its efforts.

In a May 15 letter to the Arkansas Department of Health, Gov. Mike Beebe and Attorney General Dustin McDaniel, it outlined 17 corrective actions that Exxon should be forced to take to protect the watershed. The list includes burying any pipe that is exposed, constructing diversion berms as a preventive measure in case of a rupture, funding annual emergency response exercises with state and local responders, encasing the pipeline at stream crossings, installing external leak detection technology, and installing remotely controlled shut-off valves and check valves.

Currently, only one shut-off valve exists along the pipeline in the watershed, according to the water utility. It’s at the western end of Lake Maumelle and an Exxon representative would have to drive to the site to manually close it. The utility figures at least two hours would pass from the time a rupture is detected to the time the valve could be closed—and that by then about 1.2 million gallons of oil could escape into the watershed.

Contamination of Lake Maumelle could stymie the utility because the auxiliary water supply, Lake Winona to the west, is capable of supplying only 38 percent of water it needs each day.

Exxon has told Central Arkansas Water it plans to add a second valve as an extra precaution. But the company has not yet responded to the utility’s other requests.

In early August, the utility’s board hired New York-based Tectonic Engineering and Surveying Consultants P.C. to assess vulnerabilities of the 88,000-acre watershed to the Pegasus. The study was planned before the Mayflower spill, but is now scheduled to be completed next year instead of 2015.

“As horrible and sad as (the spill) was for the people of Mayflower, it gave us a chance to learn what happens when a pipeline like that actually breaks,” said Graham Rich, the utility’s chief executive officer.

The consultants, who will begin their vulnerability assessment in October, will be figuring not only the probability and consequences of a spill, but also what standards are in place to prevent or mitigate a spill. That could well include whether the type of oil the Pegasus carries—diluted bitumen, or dilbit—creates unique cleanup challenges.

From the 1940s to 2006, the Pegasus transported sweet light crude from the Texas Gulf Coast to the Midwest. In 2006, Exxon not only reversed the flow of the oil, but it also switched to Wabasca heavy crude, a type of dilbit produced in Canada. In 2010, a million-gallon spill in Michigan’s Kalamazoo River proved difficult to clean up because the heavy oil in the dilbit sank into the riverbed. That cleanup continues more than three years later.

Hart, the utility’s technical services officer, said that when the utility included the threat of a pipeline spill in its 2009 emergency response plan, the risk mitigation was based on oil that floats—not sinks.

“How do you remediate against that?” he asked. “The more that I learn, the more frustrated I get.”

“It’s a matter of perspective,” he said about what unfolded in Mayflower. “An 850-mile pipeline is one thing to Exxon. But to somebody who lives near where the leak happened, their lives have been turned upside down.”

Rugged, Roadless Terrain a Challenge

Andy Traffanstedt, the emergency manager for Pulaski County, was with a crew that rushed to the scene of the Mayflower spill. He is also involved in preparing for a worst-case scenario at Lake Maumelle.

“Unlike Mayflower, where it popped up in a neighborhood, the lake is a more remote location,” said Traffanstedt, a paramedic for 36 years. “A leak would be much more difficult to identify there.”

One of the most challenging situations would be a spill near the river or a creek, he said. The Pegasus crosses the Maumelle River three times. It also crosses two of the river’s large tributaries, one that drains to the river and the other to the lake.

In addition, at least half a dozen robust creeks drain a five-and-a-half mile roadless stretch of the watershed near the pipeline, carving direct paths to the lake below. The terrain there is rugged, steep and accessible only via all-terrain vehicles.

The natural topography on the north side of the lake would likely capture much of the oil, so it would take a massive amount of oil to reach the lake, Traffanstedt said. But that same benefit could also create a giant headache for cleanup crews wielding heavy equipment.

If oil did reach the 12-mile-wide lake, the goal would be to keep it away from the intake pipes at the eastern end, he said. That’s why emergency responders are making sure they have boom, boats and an amphibious all-terrain vehicle on hand.

“Are we 100 percent there?” he asked. “No. But we’re getting closer to having what we need to respond.”

The Pegasus has been part of central Arkansas’s landscape for more than half a century. When built in the late 1940s, it crossed the Maumelle River. Central Arkansas Water dammed that river in 1957 to create Lake Maumelle. By 1958, the utility reached an agreement with Magnolia Pipeline Co., which operated the line back then, to move it north of the lake.

Hart cringes when he thinks about oil spilling into the lake.

“ExxonMobil doesn’t know our watershed like we do,” he said. “We want to be on their list so we can confirm what their data about the pipeline is telling us. We want to make sure we have the appropriate backup measures.”

Even if a spill were cleaned up, he said, the utility might have to upgrade or replace costly treatment technology to meet drinking water standards. And then there’s the issue of how consumers would respond, he added.

“If confidence in the water supply is shaken,” Hart said, “that’s a huge hurdle to overcome.”

Sam Eifling contributed to this report.

This story is part of a joint investigative project by InsideClimate News and the Arkansas Times. 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.