Ark. Spill Victims on ‘Wrong’ Side of Fence Left to Fend for Themselves

People who live close to the ruptured Pegasus pipeline say they weren't told of health risks and have been ignored by Exxon and government officials.

"We're the forgotten few," says Mayflower resident and mother of four named Genieve Long (pictured here). Long lives near the cove of Lake Conway into which culverts directed the spilled oil and which has been bottled up. She complains of persistent migraines. She runs a Facebook page called Mayflower Arkansas Oil Spill dedicated to the aftermath of the spill. Credit: Brian Chilson

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Part 1 of a two-part series on the residents of Mayflower, Ark., who live just a short distance from the homes that were evacuated following Exxon’s oil spill. Read Part 2.

MAYFLOWER, Ark.—In the week after an oil spill strangled the air in Ann Jarrell’s neighborhood, tens of thousands of her bees either died or went mad.

Jarrell has kept bees in her backyard since she moved to Mayflower almost two years ago. Living in the hamlet between Little Rock and Conway has afforded her the chance to be close to her daughter, Jennifer. Behind her three-bedroom brick home, at the corner of her small fenced-in yard, she tended to two beehives. Apiarists select and breed passive bees, and Jarrell’s were no different, until they were.

ExxonMobil’s Pegasus pipeline ruptured March 29, pouring what the company says was at least 200,000 gallons of oil into Mayflower. For days, the stench blowing from the sour heavy Canadian crude was rank. It was the familiar smell of oil, intensified. “Burning tires,” Jarrell said. “It was just putrid. You’d smell it and you would gag.” But no one told her it could be any more worrisome than the oil-stink of hot asphalt. Early on, Jarrell called the Mayflower police to ask whether she was in danger. A man on the other end told her she was merely noticing an additive meant to alert people to a leak, like the artificial chemical that gives natural gas its distinct aroma. (That was flatly wrong.) A few days later, an Exxon employee working on the cleanup came near her house, and Jarrell asked about the smell. The woman told her not to fret. “I didn’t know what we were breathing in was toxic,” Jarrell said recently. “Nobody was giving us any information.”

Jarrell stayed put in her house, some 300 yards from the rupture site in the Northwoods subdivision and about 200 yards west of homes that were under a mandatory evacuation order. So did Jennifer and Jennifer’s baby, Logan, who was 15 weeks old when the pipe broke. Just an additive, after all. Nothing to worry about. Only in late April would she learn, at an Earth Day meeting in nearby Conway where citizens swapped oil spill information, from a report by a Louisiana firm called the Subra Co., that the Wabasca Heavy Crude that Exxon was forcing through the old pipeline needed a formidable shot of lubricating chemicals, called diluents, to grease its passage. Together, the brew was brimming with polyaromatic hydrocarbons, which are a family of molecules that you don’t want in or on your body, and benzene, a carcinogen that causes a range of sicknesses with acute or prolonged exposure. It’s impossible to say how much of what spilled were aromatics, but even a conservative estimate would place tens of thousands of gallons of poison in the town’s air.

In the days after the pipe rupture, air monitoring tests show, the surrounding neighborhood showed dangerous levels of benzene and possibly harmful levels of octane, cyclohexane, heptane, and hexane, along with detectible levels of toluene, butane, pentane and several other industrial chemicals. While the Mayflower Unified Command—a joint response body made up of state, federal and Exxon representatives—evacuated some residents of the Northwoods subdivision and notified others, people who lived just a short distance west of those backyards weren’t told of the risks.

But the bees provided a clue. Piles of oil-stained bees turned up on the porch of one of the hives. Jarrell called the State Plant Board. Elizabeth Scott, one of the agency’s two full-time bee specialists, went with two other inspectors on April 5 to help move Jarrell’s two hives to a remote farm. She remembers it was late, and the ground was soggy. Even a week after the spill, Scott told InsideClimate News, “There was an odor in the whole town, like petroleum.”

The next day, Jarrell took stock of the hives. She found them only half-full—tens of thousands of bees hadn’t survived the previous day in her yard—and those who remained were highly aggressive. Normally, bees didn’t mind a visit. “These would go back, get more bees, and come back with a bigger group of bees to come after us,” Jarrell said.

The Mistake That Was Made

Many people in the neighborhood, like Jarrell, didn’t understand the risks. That isn’t their fault. Not even environmental chemists can tell you exactly how harmful the chemicals in that pipeline were. Most doctors aren’t trained in environmental medicine that would prepare them to treat patients with chemical exposure and oil companies such as ExxonMobil consider the chemical formula proprietary anyway. Outside the Northwoods subdivision, where 22 of 62 homes were marked for mandatory evacuation, there’s scant evidence that anyone from Exxon, the Environmental Protection Agency or the state Department of Health showed any urgency to notify residents that they were breathing an unknown quantity of known poisons. No one in a seeming position to help them make an informed decision about their health or that of their kids and pets did so.

(Read: Sickened by Exxon Oil Spill, Victims Face Confusion of Officials and Doctors)

“A mistake that was made—there’s blame to spread, including the state—is that we didn’t evacuate that whole neighborhood, making mandatory some parts of it and optional other parts of it,” Arkansas Attorney General Dustin McDaniel says now. “When you see people now who say, ‘I wasn’t forced to leave so therefore I didn’t leave and I wish that I had, because I didn’t know how bad it was going to be,’ and now they’re claiming that they still have headaches and respiratory distress, children with respiratory distress … one lesson to take from this is you err on the side of caution and you expand the evacuation area. You can always send people back sooner.”

The people who live on the wrong side of the fence that separates homes in Northwoods from the rest of the neighborhood were left to fend for themselves. The Exxon employee who talked to Jarrell might not have been so wrong: Low-level exposure likely would have been a mere nuisance. But that sharp early exposure to the airborne chemicals might’ve triggered nasty respiratory and digestive symptoms—especially in people who have weaker immune systems. By the time Jarrell and other neighbors got a full account of what they’d been exposed to, the damage was largely done. Now they’re stuck with the uncertainty, and because their exposure has been underplayed, a persistent stigma that they’re opportunists looking to exploit Exxon in court.

Except that road is an unpleasant one. Jarrell had been suffering headaches for about a month before the oil erupted and after the spill they intensified, now accompanied by nausea. Her grandson, now almost 8 months old, was diagnosed with a respiratory infection and now uses a steroid inhaler twice daily. His family is scared witless.

“The oil went to the lake,” Jarrell said. “But the toxic fumes came to us.”

(Read: What Sickens People in Oil Spills, and How Badly, Is Anybody’s Guess)

‘We’re the Forgotten Few’

Jarrell’s house backs up to the parking lot of the Mayflower Full Gospel Church. Inside the church are 13 pews, a rear room for Sunday school and a two-stair stage given to music: an organ, a Casio keyboard, a guitar, a drum set. Ceiling fans spin overhead, accessible by pull chains that dangle above the aisle. Behind the pulpit, in a little apse, is a mural of John baptizing Jesus in the river Jordan, with the spirit of God, in dove form, hovering behind Christ. The decor on the windowless walls of the nave leans inspirational. One small tapestry reads, “When God Closes One Door He Opens Another.” On the opposing wall, a tapestry quotes Psalm 84: “How lovely is your dwelling place, O Lord Almighty!”

On July 29, a Monday, the stage was dominated also by a collapsible screen onto which a little projector threw a photo of a boot print in twiggy mud. Water gathered in the depression reflected the opalescent sheen of what you can only assume is oil. Digging up those shiny slicks is incredibly easy in Mayflower: Jab a stick into wet ground anyplace the oil has passed through and watch as sparkly bloblets leak up to the surface. After a good, stiff storm, the smell gets strong, and people say they get headaches and queasy stomachs. They feel tired. They have trouble finding words. Such symptoms have lingered in the four months since the spill, and it’s getting harder for residents to disassociate them from the spill, even as any definitive medical link to chemical exposure grows ever more tenuous as time passes.

A dozen people from Mayflower and other points in Faulkner and Pulaski counties gathered at the church to share stories and information on what to do now that Exxon’s presence in Mayflower has dwindled. It was a loose affair; people chatted. “What scared me,” one man said, “was they just said ‘oil.’ They didn’t say all those other chemicals.” A reply came from April Lane, a volunteer with the Faulkner County Citizens Advisory Group, which aims to connect citizens to state agencies: “They did that as long as they could.” The feeling in the room was that residents been shunted under a big, black rug.

“We’re the forgotten few,” a mother of four named Genieve Long told the gathering. She lives near the cove of Lake Conway into which culverts directed the spilled oil and which has been bottled up, mostly. She complains of persistent migraines. She runs a Facebook page called Mayflower Arkansas Oil Spill dedicated to the aftermath of the spill. “We didn’t live in that subdivision, so we don’t count,” she continues. “But if you could smell it, you could be sickened by it.”

(Click image to enlarge)

Had public officials asked all people living near the oil to consider evacuating for a few days, it might have made a big difference for many of the people in the church. Residents have been unable to ask the Arkansas Department of Health directly why there was no contact from them; the state agency has declined invitations to the last four monthly grassroots community meetings. In an email, agency spokesman Ed Barham said that the agency began monitoring air the day of the spill. Only one of the tests around the spill site showed benzene as high as 50 parts per billion, and with the federal Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry the health department “calculated theoretical doses for infants, children and adults at this level for an extended period and determined that this level would not likely result in a long-term health risk,” Barham wrote. At a meeting organized by Unified Command soon after the spill, the department told citizens and the news media that anyone with symptoms should talk to a doctor or call the poison control center.

What wasn’t communicated, perhaps despite the health department’s honest efforts, was any sense of urgency or specificity about the risks of sticking around the neighborhood. Residents here wish they’d been nudged to decamp for a few days, or been told early on that benzene was being detected at hazardous levels just a few steps from their homes. “The fact they didn’t follow up with neighborhoods, like send one person to a neighborhood and check on people—what the hell,” Lane said. “I don’t understand why they didn’t do that, unless they just didn’t want to cause panic. I’m dumbfounded they haven’t gotten out in the community more.”

(Read: Full Extent of Heavy Metal Contamination in Exxon Oil Spill Still Unknown)

With no health officials on hand at the church, the people did their best to fill any gaps themselves, by sharing news, passing around photos they’d shot and trying to decipher government pipeline reports. At lunch everyone convened to the church’s food pantry at the back for a potluck lunch. Then they returned to the church to continue comparing notes, and to commiserate.

“I think the problem we’ve got is people think because we’re such a small town, we’re just a bunch of hicks who don’t have any God-given sense,” Linda Lynch, a church member who lives across the street, told the room from her pew. “There’s a lot of people who moved here in the last 10 or 15 years who retired like I have, and moved here to get into a smaller community, because I’ve got family who had been here for years. We’re not country hicks. We’re smart people. We’re educated.”

Lynch’s voice, forceful, carried in the small vestibule. Her polite, tight cursive on an undated index card pinned to a cork board on the back wall informed parishioners her son Scott’s capital-c Cancer has returned, and asks for prayers.

(Part 2: Persisting Impact of Ark. Oil Spill Tears Community and Family Fabric)

This story is part of a joint investigative project by Arkansas Times and InsideClimate News. Funding for the project comes from people like you who donated to an crowd-funding campaign that raised nearly $27,000 and from the Fund for Investigative Journalism.