Persisting Impact of Ark. Oil Spill Tears Community and Family Fabric

"There was a real good sense of community in Mayflower before all this happened," said one resident. "And now it's like everybody picked a side."

Cleanup operations at the site of Exxon's pipeline spill in Mayflower, Ark./Credit: U.S. Environmental Protection Agency

Share this article

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

MAYFLOWER, Ark.—The Pegasus pipeline runs between Illinois and Texas, over streams, under rivers, through wilds, and under relatively few homes. The fact that it split open underneath a housing development was a twist of bad luck. An independent forensic metallurgical report on the faulty stretch of pipe made note of that coincidence, and gave a half-nod to possible causality: “During construction of the homes, the pipeline may have experienced vehicle loadings caused by construction equipment and/or vehicles crossing the pipeline at multiple locations, including over the fractured segment.” All else equal, humans are safer keeping a distance from pipelines, and vice-versa.

The reasons for energy infrastructure to be routed away from populated areas are obvious. In the ’60s, for instance, before Arkansas built Lake Maumelle some seven miles southwest of Mayflower, the state insisted Exxon move the Pegasus out of its original path. Now the pipeline merely runs through Maumelle’s watershed—one of 18 drinking water sources it traverses in Arkansas alone. State leaders insist Exxon move the Pegasus even further from the lake before the pipeline is restarted, if indeed it ever is, given that the pipeline’s failure threatens the drinking water source for 400,000 people in and around Little Rock. Because pipelines rarely run under neighborhoods, not a great deal is known about what happens to people when there is a break in one.

Scott Crow, Linda Lynch’s son, lives next door to his mother, across the street from the church on Snuggs Circle. On the day of the spill, when he heard oil was gushing out of the ground in Northwoods, his first thought was that someone had struck it rich. He grabbed a digital camera and tromped through the weeds that cover the pipeline’s easement. It took him five minutes to reach the black swamp.

At the time, the smell didn’t alarm him much. “It was like being at the gas station and there being oil on the ground,” he said. “I figured it was probably about as dangerous as that, at the time, because there weren’t announcements coming saying you need to get out of town.” He posted photos to Facebook; news outlets that had been blocked from entering the subdivision picked them up. That night, he said, the smell became overpowering, “like being in a house on fire.” He began developing headaches, nausea. A few days later, he became dizzy while working in his yard and fell to his knees

The first indication that he could be in danger came from strangers writing to him online and saying, hey, you really ought not to breathe that stuff. “Before this I didn’t know the difference between the Keystone XL and a Keystone beer,” Crow said, referring to the controversial oil pipeline many times the size of Pegasus that is proposed to run from Canada to the Gulf of Mexico. “It wasn’t something I was studying up on.” Early town meetings weren’t much help. To Crow, it seemed that representatives from the state and from Exxon were more interested in keeping everyone calm than in addressing concerns directly. “Exxon finally, when they showed up, it felt like ‘Red Dawn,’ ” he said. “You felt like your town was being taken over and there wasn’t anything you could do about it. Any questions you asked it was like go back to your house.” At their first meeting with officials, falling as it did so close after the Good Friday pipeline break, residents who attended got to take home a little Easter basket, courtesy of Exxon, for their troubles.

It was mid-April before they got word—official word, via the news—that the pipeline contained some known carcinogens and other chemicals that might explain the headaches and dizziness. It was a major revelation, not least because Crow had suffered a round of cancer two years earlier that cost him one testicle and left him monitoring a stable mass on the other. Crow and his wife, Barbara Bogard Crow, drove to the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences medical center in Little Rock, they say, where they received two different receptions. Crow told his attending physician that he was worried about how close he was living to the oil spill. He underwent a few tests and emerged with no definitive diagnosis. Barbara, meanwhile, didn’t mention the oil spill. Doctors ran several tests and diagnosed her with bronchitis. Exxon’s claims department paid for that visit for the two of them but hasn’t answered their calls since. Aaron Stryk, an Exxon spokesman, said in an email that all health claims from Mayflower are handled “on a case-by-case basis” and that “for all valid claims, we have paid all medical expenses.”

These days, after a rain, Barbara’s tongue tingles with a metallic flavor.

“I feel like anything on this side of Northwoods, they don’t care about,” Crow said. “If they’d let us know from the get-go, I could’ve gotten out of there for a while. Two weeks I’m out here breathing it and no one’s telling me?

“There was a real good sense of community in Mayflower before all this happened. And now it’s like everybody picked a side. A lot of people, unless somebody drops dead and a doctor said, ‘The oil spill is what caused it,’ they’re not going to believe it. They think a lot of us are just troublemakers, and that’s just not the case.”

Like others in his situation, Crow has deflected accusations that he’s angling for a handout. It wasn’t until a couple of days after the church meeting, more than four months after the spill, that he even signed with an attorney.

Too Few Evacuations

Two months after the spill, a gaggle of people in Mayflower (though no one interviewed for this article) filed a lawsuit against Exxon, regulators, the subdivision developers—a net cast far and wide. Residents claimed devalued property, nuisance, expenses and the usual. The most alarming reading is in the suit’s details of health claims, which include, variously: sore throat, nausea, burning eyes, nosebleeds, “vomiting for several hours after the initial exposure,” severe headaches, blurred vision, loss of balance, insomnia, severe coughing, loss of appetite, diarrhea, aggravated asthma, rashes, shortness of breath, dizziness, watery eyes, pneumonia, bronchitis. People literally got as sick as dogs: The suit says a pet dog developed a “weeping discharge” from the eyes; another developed a “chronic wheeze.”

Many of the people who sued live in the Northwoods subdivision and are covered by a range of benefits that Exxon has extended to those residents. Those include compensation for lost rental income, a promise to cover any drop in value for a house sold there in the next three years, moving expenses and an offer to buy outright the 22 homes that were under mandatory evacuation orders, at pre-spill prices.

But as time passes, the difference between what’s in the subdivision and what’s immediately outside seems immaterial.

“It was a couple of days before it started to sink into people,” Attorney General McDaniel said. “A lot of people were under the impression there were 22 houses in the whole subdivision. That was just one half of one street. So to say that the 22 houses impacted, as if that is a declarative statement of the totality, that just became a refrain there for a while: ‘Twenty-two houses were evacuated.’ Well, yeah, 22 houses were mandatorily evacuated, but the folks right across the street, or right next door, even though they weren’t forced to evacuate that night, most of them left anyway, whether it was in the next 24 hours or in the next week.

“Hindsight being 20/20,” he continues, “it would not have been unreasonable to double or even triple the number of mandatorily evacuated homes.”

Perhaps no home outside the subdivision is closer to the spill site than that of Rex and Cynthia Stover, whose home at the end of Northside Drive sits one-eighth of a mile southwest of the rupture site. On a Saturday afternoon, Cynthia was found running a yard sale with her young granddaughter, Madison. Box fans cooled the inside of her garage, where she noticed a visitor’s attention turned to a velvet portrait in the corner. “We’ve got lots of Elvis,” she said, smiling. She apologized for how croaky she sounded: “This isn’t my real voice.” The night of the spill, she said, the fumes positively blared into their home. To get through the night, she helped herself to some of her husband’s bottled oxygen.

He seems to have weathered the aftermath without any ill effects—a factor, perhaps, of his own immune system, or perhaps of his breathing prepackaged air. She’s found herself feeling fatigued at her job and has developed a persistent, ratting cough. “It’s not very comfortable to wake up two or three times a night,” she said. Her granddaughter added, “I hear her, too.”

The Stovers had been planning to sell this home, to retire and buy a motor home, to see the country and spend more time in Northwest Arkansas, near their granddaughter. Their proximity to a “major” spill, as the EPA has classified the accident, is likely to keep them in place longer than they’d intended. No one prodded them to pack up and skip town for a few days, and now, they expect, the housing market will keep them there all the longer.

Their predicament inspires a question that seems easier to ask well after the spill, when everyone in the neighborhood wishes they’d found somewhere else to stay for a few days: Why, if things were so bad, did you not leave?

Said Scott Crow: “I tried to give the situation the benefit of the doubt.” Maybe this is on account of trusting the authorities a little too much, or not understanding the potential risks, or not wanting to seem fearful. If McDaniel talks about lessons for the next such spill, in Arkansas or elsewhere, but especially in the South, one may be: Unless you explicitly advise people to do so, and explain the gravity of the dangers upfront, people’s nature is not to leave their homes. Many will stay, and if Mayflower is any indication, many will try to tough it out, not realizing that they could be imperiling their health.

“I’m just as bad as everybody else out there,” Ann Jarrell said. “I kept thinking, ‘That’s their problem. They need to handle that.’ Well, I woke up one morning and realized, I am they. That’s when I started taking pictures and documenting everything I can. Because nobody’s going to do it for us.”

(Read Part 1: Ark. Spill Victims on ‘Wrong’ Side of Fence Left to Fend for Themselves)

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.